Monday, September 19, 2011

Circus Games

'Trust no one!'
As a general rule of thumb, it is often true that the most unpromising ideas turn out to be the ones that actually work the best. Not always, of course, but far more often than you might think. Case in point. When this blogger first heard that there was a film version of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy in production sometime last year, he had much the same reaction as he did when he heard that the BBC's 2003 classic State of Play was being remade by Hollywood. Which was, basically: 'Oh, Christ alive, no! Leave it alone you stupid Americans, you'll only ruin it!' Of course, long term dear blog readers may well remember that when Kevin Macdonald's State of Play movie came out, in 2009, yer actual Keith Telly Topping only went and bloody loved it, didn't he? Just goes to show, I guess ... Always find out what TV series yer actual Keith Telly Topping thinks will be pretty much unfilmable and 'best left alone' and then go ahead and remake them. Chances are they'll be terrific.

So, anyway, for those of you dear blog readers who don't know Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was a genuinely groundbreaking 1974 espionage thriller novel by John le Carré - equally as important as his earlier The Night Manager and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. It featured the character of George Smiley, a middle-aged, taciturn, perspicacious intelligence expert forced into retirement along with his boss, the enigmatic spymaster Control, after an undercover mission has gone wrong. Through an affair with the wife of a KGB officer, British 'scalphunter' Ricki Tarr discovers that there is (as Control had long suspected) a high-ranking Soviet mole within The Circus, the highest echelon of the Secret Intelligence Service. Tarr alerts Oliver Lacon, the Civil Service officer responsible for MI6 and Lacon enlists Smiley to investigate. In keeping with le Carré's work, the narrative begins in medias res with the repatriation of a captured British spy. The background is supplied during the book through a series of flashbacks. The book was a sensation when it was published - a best-seller and a beautifully serious counterpoint to the James Bond school of spy thriller. It was massively influential (not only in bringing a plethora of new terms into the genre for writers to play with - 'The Cousins', 'housekeepers', 'The Competition' etc.) but also in the ideology that it shone a light on. Which, with minor adaptations, has managed to effectively define the genre for the next forty years - all the way to 24, [spooks], the Bourne movies and way beyond. In 1979, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was adapted to television as a seven-part series by the BBC. It featuring Alec Guinness in the role of Smiley and a support cast which included the likes of Michael Jayston, Bernard Hepton, Ian Richardson, Ian Bannen, Hywel Bennett, Terence Rigby, Beryl Reid, Siân Phillips and Patrick Stewart. It was then, and remains thirty odd years later, a twenty-four carat TV masterpiece. And if you haven't got it on DVD then you're rubbish and need to be punched. It's £4.89 over at Play (postage and packing inclusive). Go there. Now!
So, anyway, we come to 2011 and the acclaimed Swedish director Tomas Alfredson finally unleashes his adaptation to an expectant public. One brief look at the cast will tell you nearly all you need to know about the film. This is, without doubt, one of the finest showcases for British acting talent in recent memory. The story is set at some unspecified point during the 1970s (politics aside, the music, a few haircuts and the vintage cars are the only real clue as to the fact that this is supposed to be a period piece). This is Britain at the height of its Cold War paranoia. A Britain in decay, no longer sure of its place in the world. The story follows Smiley (Gary Oldman stepping into the shoes of the late Alec Guinness with a sense of a man having finally found the role he was born to play) as he is brought out of retirement to hunt and expose a mole at the top of The Circus.
Smiley's former mentor, Control, (John Hurt) assigns the code names 'Tinker', 'Tailor', 'Soldier', 'Poor Man' and 'Beggar Man' to various senior intelligence officers under suspicion of being a Soviet mole. (One of which, in a massive red-herring, is actually Smiley himself.) Among the possible suspects are Smiley's former colleagues at The Circus Bill Haydon (Peter Firth), Percy Allenine (a dryly sinister performance by Toby Jones), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) and rogue scalphunter Ricki Tarr (a superb performance by Tom Hardy). Smiley's only true allies in the investigation, after the - possibly suspicious - death of Control himself, are his protégé the soft-spoken Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch on terrific form, as usual) and a retired bagman, Mendel (Roger Lloyd-Pack). The only big name missing in the line-up is the unsung hero of the piece, Mark Strong, who is superb in his multi-faceted portrayal of the crippled and betrayed former-agent Jim Prideaux. Strong has made something of a career out of relative bit-parts and villain roles (including notable turns in Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes and Kick-Ass) since his breakthrough performance in Our Friends In The North. Yet here, Alfredson rests the emotional core of the film on Prideaux, who is constantly nursing a number of bullet holes from a recent double-cross in Budapest (a minor departure from the original text's Czech operation).

This is one of a few minor differences from the original. Ricki Tarr's mission to investigate Soviet agent Bad Boris is moved from Hong Kong to Istanbul. Two characters, Sam Collins and Jerry Westerby are combined into one and another, Roddy Martindale, is dropped altogether. Peter Guillam is gay in the film, as opposed to being (aggressively) heterosexual in the novel. And, possibly the only change that seemed a step backwards, Prideaux shoots his betrayer, rather than breaking his neck, at the film's climax. Two other important characters from the original are dropped. Smiley's Russian counterpart Karla (played superbly by the then virtually unknown Patrick Stewart in the TV version) here remains unseen - a claustrophobic felt presence lurking in the shadows. As, interestingly, is Smiley's unfaithful wife - and 'blind spot' - Ann. They represent allegiances and betrayals at the private and public levels. In addition to the atmospheric cinematography and the spot-on period designs, there are also numerous emblematic images which stick in the viewer's mind - like a cigarette lighter which becomes almost totemic as the film progresses. There's the use people make of their glasses and points changing on the railway lines outside the shabby hotel where Smiley has established his headquarters. Music is also cleverly worked into the action. There's a brilliantly staged Christmas party for workers at The Circus (at which le Carré himself makes a brief cameo appearance), where the drunken revellers sing along to Sammy Davis Junior's song 'The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World' (theme from a now virtually forgotten 1965 British spy movie Licensed To Kill, a rather obvious Bond rip-off) and cheer as Santa Claus appears wearing a Lenin mask, mocking them all to the strains of the Soviet national anthem. In retirement, the terminally sick patriot Control (of whom le Carré observed: 'He hated everywhere except Surrey, The Circus and Lord's cricket ground') plays an LP of Jussi Björling singing the ultimate patriotic Swedish song You Blessed Land. There are also scenes linking dramatic strands through George Formby's 'Chinese Laundry Blues' on the radio and a jaunty version of Charles Trénet's 'La Mer' by Julio Iglesias at the close. These are both witty and rather daring in this age of making sure the soundtrack LP has a couple of hits on it. But then, this is a movie which surprises and satisfies in unexpected and pleasing ways. It almost goes without saying that the cast are all superb. In particular Kathy Burke as a wounded, disillusioned Connie Sachs who, in one lengthy scene and a couple of tiny cameos, manages to near enough steal the film from under Oldham, Firth and Cumberbatch's collective nose.

Oldman himself is an emotive, yet totally introverted Smiley - he's in three scenes before he opens his mouth at the film's beginning. He perfectly embodies the ageing spy's uncomfortable, anachronistic position in both 1970s London and the increasingly ugly and sordid espionage game which is no longer being played by the old rules. Oldman's Smiley carries Guinness's admirable stillness and almost banal sense of privacy in a world of secrets and lies. But there's a hardness under the surface which makes his performances, perhaps, the definitive one. It was always a bit difficult to imagine dear old uncle Alec taking out a Walther and silencer in some shady Istbanbul hotel and terminating an asset gone rogue with extreme prejudice. With Oldham, you're only surprised he gets through this entire movie without actually stabbing someone in the bladder. Firth, Cumberbatch, Jones and Hardy all give terrific performances in their respective roles, and should all be strongly considered by the Academy come next year's Best Supporting Actor nominations.
Perhaps the biggest success story to come out of the whole project however is Alfredson, given the unenviable dual-task of following up his stunningly impressive Swedish vampire drama Låt Den Rätte Komma In (2008), whilst also - alongside screenwriters Peter Straughan and his wife, the late Bridget O'Connor - condensing le Carré's complex, labyrinthine text into a coherent film narrative. The differences between the television adaptation and the movie are, to use a cricketing metaphor that one hopes le Carre would approve of, the differences between a Test Match and Twenty/20 international. Both are full of tension and drama, both have a duality about them, but one is played out on an elongated canvas which allows for greater subtlety and quiet lulls in the action. That's not to say that the film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy lacks any depth or character shading. Indeed, for all its speed as compared to the original (one hundred and twenty seven minutes as opposed to six hours plus) I can still see movie-goers who expect an explosion every five minutes being a bit bored by its lengthy stretches of languor. The film's pace which borders on tepid inertia at times is also, curiously, what sets it apart. The film takes the same story as the TV adaptation, shortens it, rearranges the order in which the audience is given the information, retains the book's tone (and, magnificently, its - then shocking - homoerotic undertones!), makes the impact more visual and retains the rich ambivalences. And yet, all of the bits that you remember from the book or the TV series are still there - Connie's heartbreaking 'all my lovely boys' speech; Smiley finding Ricki in his house; the shocking murder of Irina. And, all the great dialogue too: 'We are not so very different, you and I. We've both spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another.' And: 'We have a rotten apple, Jim.' And: 'There's a mole, right at the top of The Circus. And he's been there for years.' With Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Alfredson has not only succeeded in overcoming the challenges posed by comparisons with the past, but has produced probably the best film of the year so far.

One resists the maddening temptation to go for 'Complete Control' for the latest Keith Telly Topping's 45 of the Day, dear blog reader. What can I say, yer actual Keith Telly Topping is nothing if not a contrary sod. Here's The Skids.