A barely justified re-telling: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)

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After reading John Le Carre’s novel, I have more admiration for Tomas Alfredson’s film as an adaptation. It’s remarkably compressed, yes, but not in a slavish and workmanlike fashion, as in, say, the Harry Potter movies. The plot points and pieces of information have been carefully selected and rearranged (any less care with this novel would have been disastrous) for a two hour film. Meanwhile, the additions bring something new to the source and it’s all contained within a consistent style and tone. But is all of this enough to justify telling this story again, and in this medium?

Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor have made skillful changes in their screenplay. Singapore becomes Istanbul. An action scene described near the end of the novel is reworked to open the film, reduced to a smaller scale that belies the many events that have brought it about and that it will in turn begin. Peter Guillam is changed from a womanizer to a homosexual so that his ruined relationship can comment on the effect George’s job has had on his marriage to Ann, and on why it has been so easy for Bill to manipulate Jim. Ricky Tarr is also quite different; his romance is played up to bring some badly needed pathos to the story-here he doesn’t have a wife and child, while her husband is horribly abusive.

The Circus’ Christmas party, which appears three times during the film, is particularly clever. It mirrors Le Carre’s real experiences at M16, where the Christmas parties were, apparently, wild. It also brings many of the characters into one space and results in some of the most revealing moments. Smiley seeing Ann cheating on him while everyone sings the Russian anthem is perfect.

Despite all this thought and imagination, however, I wonder: is the final film strong enough to justify a new adaptation? It goes through the plot points, but it doesn’t manage to make them feel significant on a deeper level. The film’s silence and coldness conveys the isolation and dreariness of the spying profession, but it doesn’t fully communicate the underlying complexities or emotional life of the characters, which makes it hard to invest in.

Gary Oldman is praiseworthy for his incredible stillness and for the care he takes with those moments when his George Smiley becomes less contained, but within a film full of subtle music and brown hues and elusive information he seems simply blank. Why should we care about Smiley and his task? We can only make inferences about his inner life, and I wonder if Alfredson thinks he’s made it more clear than it actually is. When the director says on his commentary that Smiley is hurt by the idea that Alleline, Bland, Haydon or Easterhase could be traitors, I was surprised. I can accept that he is, but I just think there’s hardly a trace of that in the film and have trouble believing that I’m supposed to see it.

Mark Strong is also notable for his performance here. He shows everything necessary about Jim Prideaux, including the incredible sadness of him. Strong is helped, though, by the fact that it’s a character that benefits from having the important things left unsaid. The other actors in this film aren’t so lucky and Tom Hardy and Oldman are the only ones who get to make an impression in their meagrely parcelled out screentime.

Why give this amazing cast so little to work with? Why should we care who the mole is when we barely know who any of them are? Why try to retell a story that worked as a seven-part miniseries in a two hour film? It just winds up being complicated yet insubstantial, with the closing montage the only truly affecting sequence. If the original cut of this film really was three and a half hours, that makes this all the more disappointing. Perhaps it would have worked. I’m afraid, though, that it may have given us more moments like the two minute long deleted scene that consists entirely of Gary Oldman frying an egg. That one, along with Alfredson’s commentary remarks, leaves me questioning what the director was aiming for, and what he thinks he has achieved.

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