Saturday, September 17, 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

When I decided to see the new film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy today I was determined not be to begin my review by saying that it was not as good as the book or the TV series. But...

It's not as good as the book or the TV series.

The film has many strengths and I would urge you to see it, but there are too many clunky lines and too much is made obvious. The makers seems to think we need to see a murdered body at regular intervals to remember that the Soviets are the baddies. The staff of the British secret service seem able to take documents home whenever they wish. And the idea that, after they had been sacked, Control and Smiley would walk out of the office in sight of everyone is just silly.

And Colin Firth, playing Bill Haydon, is made to bring his bicycle into the office to show he does not care for protocol. Ian Richardson, playing the same part in 1979, was allowed to do that just with his eyebrows and tone of voice.

And the industrial look of the Circus (the headquarters of British intelligence) surely comes from more recent film and television fashion rather than any attempt to recreate the cramped office accommodation of the 1970s and Le Carré's book. You half expect an angry Trevor Eve to turn up and start writing on glass screens.

They did manage to get the whole of the novel's plot into the film, which even in two hours is quite an achievement. However, Roy Bland might as well not have been there and, more importantly, the critical incident in which Jim Prideaux visited Czechoslovakia is mishandled. It is moved to Hungary (which does not matter but seems pointless) and turned into a shooting outside a cafe.

Yet the whole point of this incident in the book is that the Soviets and Czechs make it look like a barmy attempt to kidnap a General, and that ends Control's career. Here it is hard to see why it should do so.

And then there is the cast. My feeling is that almost everyone looks 10 or 20 years too young. The film is set in the 1970s, but the plot has its roots in World War II and even the 1930s. You would not think it from looking at the principal actors.

Comparing the current cast with the cast from the television adaptation is a bit like choosing a joint team from the last Ashes series. It would consist of 10 Englishmen and Michael Hussey - and even then you would wonder how much we would miss Paul Collingwood's close catching.

Here it is the 1979 cast that would get almost all the places. Even the fashionable Benedict Cumberbatch makes a less convincing Peter Gwillam than Michael Jayston from 1979. It's not that he is a lesser actor: it's just that he does not convince as a man of action.

And then there is Gary Oldman as George Smiley.

Having watched the TV series twice recently, I suspect that the legendary status of Alec Guinness's performance had something to do with the fact that it was the first major television drama he had appeared in.

When Oldman speaks he is very good and very convincing, even if his voice does owe something to Guinness's Smiley. The trouble is that he is made to stay silent for a long time at the start of the film.

As a result you start wondering, with his moon face, grey hair and glasses, whether Oldman's Smiley reminds you most of John Birt, John Major or Sven Goran Eriksson.

And you wouldn't want any of them running the secret service.

Still it is a good film, even if it does not deserve the praise that has been rained on it. I am probably too close  to the story at the moment, as I am going through something of a John Le Carré period.

I will be interested to know what those who are not familiar with the book, and not familiar with the 1979 television version in particular, make of the 2011 film.


John said...

Having just returned from seeing it I get really annoyed (so much that I feel like screaming inside)that people don't understand the reference point for people who are say under 50 - that of the radio adaptation!

In that respect it was almost as if I was watching the adaptation.

I did love it but I love the crime/spy `little things like a cigarette case` with sparse words in a kind of `harveyesque writing` really appealing.

John said...

sorry it's late `I did love it but I find the crime/spy `little things like a cigarette case mean a lot` type stories with sparse `harveyesque` style writing really appealing.

Jennie Rigg said...

I haven't got around to reading the book, but have seen the TV series, and heard the radio adaptation on radio 4 recently.

I really loved it. I loved the sparseness of the cafe shooting rather than OTT car chases and things, and I loved Oldman's silence for the first ten minutes too. Your mileage clearly did vary ;)

Jonathan Calder said...

I heard a little of the radio adaptations (though not Tinker, Tailor...) and they did sound very good.

One of the things I like about Le Carre is that you don't get car chases, but the Soviets have to supply some flashes and bangs for the capture of Jim Prideaux or the plot does not make sense.

Anonymous said...

Having neither read the book or seen the TV series I was rather disappointed with the film. In fact so were the other 8 people in the group I was with. From being very slow in opening to the actual following of the story line I do believe too much had been left to the idea that the 'viewer' would have had some previous knowledge of the story. I do not normally leave comments about viewings, but felt so strongly about the amount of so called expert 'good write ups' on this film I decided to input my normal paying viewers thoughts. Would I recommend it? Sorry, no I would not.