Dear friends and readers,
I went to see this yesterday with Izzy and we both liked it very much. I recommend it as a superbly well done commercially oriented film — as were Mereilles/Channing-Williams and Caine’s Constant Gardner and Boorman/Davies Tailor of Panama — and doubtless the 1965 Spy who Came in From the Cold, famed from the cast of Richard Burton (and I’ll add, looking back), Cyril Cusack, Rupert Davies, Claire Bloom, Robert Hardy, Michael Horden, a Martin Ritt (director, producer), Paul Dehn (writer) product.
Probably few noticed that the screenplay here was attributed to Bridget O’Connor, with Peter Straughan; and at the end O’Connor was listed as having died and the film was said to be in her honor. LeCarre was a major producer so major influence. I’ve seen O’Connor’s name listed before — in the 1977 Tinker Tailor credits somewhere (it was written by Arthur Hopcroft, directed by John Irvin produced by Jonathan Powell) and again the 1982 Smiley’s People (written by John LeCarre himself with the assistance of John Hopcraft, director Simon Langton, producer Jonathan Powell).
All this does matter — at the BBC who wrote the screenplay is the dominating continuing presence and in commercial films who directs is in charge. The company matters so the 77 and 82 films were not sheerly commercial products, though made by BBC2 to be popular, with an eye of seeking a large adult audience, which they both did. Still they did not have to make a big profit and who produces — he or nowadays she gets to say what is spent. But LeCarre’s films have each time been commercial products and what’s more each time they are a roster of not just who’s who in English filming but who are the effective actors, the ones who give virtuoso performances and yet attract an audience: who are the big stars, the ones with “old” prestige, who’s up and coming.
One difference between this and those previous is even less attention to women; except Little Drummer Girl (which I’ve not seen) and Constant Gardner, women are a minor presence in LeCarre films (though not in the books). Ann (Sian Philips) does turn up critically in 1977 and 1982, and arguably Philips’s one longish scene with Guiness as Smiley in Smiley’s People is central to the film’s meaning — I’ve put it on the Trollope19thCStudies (@ Yahoo) website. Like so many other costume dramas, in the 1982 Smiley’s People (written by LeCarre remember) the landscape is central to the irony and force of the moment.
Sian Philips as Ann and Alec Guiness as Smiley: in the scene he tells her he never wants to live with her again; she wants him still to be there (he cannot get himself to say he cannot bear it) (1982 BBC Smiley’s People)
In 1977 we really did get to know Irene and Ricki Tarr’s concern for her felt so much realer; Irene did not exist simply to be beaten, fucked, and then shot up dead. The 1977/82 Ann had a personality.
It might be that the lesser presence of women is simply lack of time, for the 77 film was 7 episodes of 290 minutes (5 hours or so) and this 2011 film was 127 minutes (2 hours plus). But I doubt it: it was indicative, not of LeCarre’s misogyny, but our times which the film did reflect.
First its aesthetics: it’s fast-moving and you have to pay attention, epitomizing moments are swift, and except for rare moments — as when Gary Oldman as Smiley reports his scene with Carla — who does not appear and enacts it out for them both as memory in front of Bernard Cumberbatch as Peter Gwilliam — no soliloquys. (The 1977 had many.) It communicates through the pictures, the stills, the mise-en-scene which swirls around the actors. A hard mean tough environment; I can hardly recall a scene in the country except when we are with Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux and then the land looked as bleak and worn as Mark Strong. All city this one, all steel buildings, small rooms, cement places, dives, and the actors photographed to make them look seedy and however glamorous not pretty but with real hard skin and pocked marked and irregular features like the rest of us — for real. I don’t know how cinematographers manage this nowadays but they do.
Flashbacks galore – in order to get the complicated story line in. A use of music to quickly evoke a mood.
Then its big problem: the cold war is over. LeCarre’s book is much better than a tirade against communism; in fact it’s about how Karla and Smiley are alter egos, and organizations as treacherous. As everyone knows, what John LeCarre did that was remarkable was to endow the detective and spy story with serious political content for the first time. They are not frivolous Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes stories. They mirror the human condition in the world’s marketplaces, at business and how these deform personal relationships. He made the popular form carry serious weight. But still there was this “enemy,” the bad guy and that was played upon in the 77 film.
So “the enemy” gone. One result was to bring out LeCarre’s apolitical themes, the universal ones. This was a film about betrayal. The necessity of betrayal, not only did Bill Hayden betray his best, indeed homoerotic friend, Jim Prideaux, but to survive everyone seems to have to betray some one else. More you must betray your best self to survive.
The final moments were Jim Prideax shooting Hayden through the head at long distance. Yes Hayden had sent him on a mission where he was nearly killed and then tortured, and now maimed emotionally for life. Mark Strong did convey the loneliness of the man who has to recluse himself; he is good to the young fat boy who is not manly, but strains to do. He was made up to look at all sixes and sevens, distraught like Ian Bannen (the 1977 Jim), but somehow was different and memorable:
A coward’s act, mean somehow, made to feel right: he has been destroyed by the betrayal.
We also have Smiley coming home to Ann (who as I say we never see): she has betrayed him with lots of men (this is a theme of LeCarre, the hero whose pride is ravaged by his inability to keep his chief woman faithful to him); Oldman hesitated ever so slightly but then went forward, we saw him pat her hand and then he turns to go upstairs. He will tell her nothing.
This film stressed how Smiley lied to Ricki Tarr when Smiley did not tell Tarr that Irene had been murdered in order to get Tarr to go to Paris and risk his life again. Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr is emphatically made lower class, that class matters is made clear in this film.
In 1977 Bennet as Tarr is told the truth, Tarr does not want a family as in this one — picking up on the need for sentimental haven in our world — but he did want to escape to Scotland with her and is made to see the ironic failure such a scheme would produce. He did not need to go to public school in 1977.
All this — from the patting of a woman’s hand to the strong sense of hierarchy and bosses and no confidences in one another at all — reminded me of The Godfather and that’s the central thing I’ll emphasize. This was a Godfather LeCarre: harder, meaner tougher endlessly meaningless world than the 77 film. The lighting, the square way Colin Firth as the central traitor was caught again and again (evoking deliberately an aging Marlon Brando). Gary Oldman was dressed to remind us of Alec Guiness and he imitated him at times, but he never looked distressed, he never seemed upset inwardly, no tremors. Guiness had a lot of this. The males cried in the 2011 film, but it was sudden, over quickly and then they looked simply grim. At the film’s end when Smiley has betrayed himself, really to no purpose, he comes into the committee room and takes over Control’s seat. The outfit is his. Alec Guiness was an aging Hamlet, hesitant, wishing he didn’t have to, and he eludes the camera in the last scene, sneaking into his house; Oldman is Fortinbras, taking over and the ironic joke is the same one.
Something is lost when you do this, maybe a lot. In the feel, the quality of the humanity. I watched an interesting program on what happened to the movies in the early 1950s when they were purged of socialism altogether – there was to be no feel-good community type fable, none of this Good Companion J. B. Priestley stuff common in 1930s films and still be found as the iconic joking of “we are all in this madhouse together” the Carry on British films (Guiness was part of that era).
Well everyone in 2011 Tinker Tailor is going it alone. [I hope my reader realizes the human community could be presented very differently; as utterly interdependent and doing much in relation to another cooperatively; but this is a no-no politically since the 1950s. Yes, Mrs Thatcher there is such a thing as society.]
And yes the corollary problem was the previous film. Every time you remake something deservedly famous you have this. The film-makers opted for compromises. Sometimes they imitated and deliberately repeated. It was done so well the first time. The actors have to make a decision, whether to evoke the previous actor not not. Oldman did. Firth did not. In the two Sense and Sensibilties of 1995 and 2008: as Hattie Morahan doesn’t replace Emma Thompson as Elinor but is as good so Gary Oldman to Alec Guiness (who he nonetheless had in mind). But at least the S&S films had other films before and after. This one has only the one. It was also a transposition type: all the major characters kept, all famous quips, all hinge points (central turns in the action) faithful to the book in both 1977 and 2011 (and also 1982).
The result as a mixed bag for the second actors Cumberbatch was not a repeat of Jayston but he was not used in a new in-depth way. He was mostly just a hard-action kind of figure, except when he suddenly broke down in a flashback that showed us he was a homosexual and had broken up with his lover to keep his career looking like a heterosexual type, and a short dialogue with a girl who aggression at him he refuses is then explained. At film’s end he is grinning in complicity (smirking is closer to it) as Oldma takes over. This actor can do much better than that (see Small Island). Michael Jayston who had played Rochester brilliantly (1972 BBC mini-series) as Peter was a genuine “student-pupil” learning about the complexities of the world as he sat (several times) with Smiley listening to Smiley tell stories.
Ciarhan Hinds had hardly a moment before us (Roy Bland), the part of Toby Esterhase was cut severely (it had been Bernard Hepton) and instead of someone who broke under pressure and became a go-between we seem to get a kind of cartoon figure reminding me of Jacobean drama when someone could be so swiftly hired to murder anywhere. Just tell him where. Toby Jones as Percy Alleline was given more, and he was a kind of dwarf figure, a bully.
The two longer scenes for secondary actors: Ricki Tarr. Tom Hardy was brilliant as a broken man, very handsome and sexy, actually tender-hearted. That was maybe an improvement for Ricki Tarr in 1977 was the drop-dead beautiful Hywell Bennet, a matinee idol type and we watched him have a romantic idyll with Irene where he was clearly getting secrets out of her and nothing more until the last moment when he seemed suddenly to care, more for himself — to escape to Scotland (the old dream I have — let’s escape to Cornwall I is mine). LeCarre’s last book with Smiley had him in Cornwall with a cottage where Ann visits a lot.
And Connie Saches. Kathy Burke. Old and fat and not getting “fucked” enough — so she says. Women are allowed some weight and presence when they are not bed-able it seems. Her scenes were moving. She had been discarded; she had memories. She was like Liv Ullman in some Bergman film going over the family pictures. It was done by Dorothy Tutin in 1977 and 1982, and in the later with a cat. No cat here. One can measure the distance we’ve gone – where we are ambiguously in the presentation of women in commercial films — by looking at their typology; Kathy Burke is in type like those who played Helen Mirren’s sidekicks as decent police officers in Prime Suspect; Dorothy Tutin was costume drama heroine in the 1970s, doing starring roles in South Riding. Burke was never a heroine type like this yet she is accorded much compassion.
Hard to say if Colin Firth as Bill Haydon was a secondary actor. He emerges first as a continuing presence towards the end. He was not given as much as Ian Richardson who does evil very well. Rather Firth was a hard man, hardened by the world, sitting there in his elegant suit when he is exposed. I thought to myself (as we all take these stars across roles) it must be a relief for him for once not to be the suffering hero, all moral, but he was oddly more vulnerable than Richardson. When he smiles at Strong, he looks like he means it. His last lines were something new: he asks Smiley to look after the young woman in his apartment, give her his bank account and oh yes at least tell her he loved her (looking like this was the necessary).
It was Charles II’s let not poor Nelly starve. And oh yes there’s a young man there too, let him off softly. We never knew about Bill Hayden’s bisexuality in 1977 (it’s in the book). Richardson and Hayden both care nothing for Ann, they use her.
I’ve skipped some, John Hurt as Control. He was hardly there enough, so much going on around him as the film provided five things happening at once.
One place this film was better, much, than the 70s was the “faux” immigrant types were gone. None of this kind of “twisted human beings with funny accents” that mar the 1977 and 1982 films; they are gone by the 1990s. So there’s an improvement in filmic outlooks.
Last night I finished watching the 1982 Smiley’s People. People may not remember that ends with Guiness as Smiley setting a trap for Patrick Stewart as Karla and two of them confronting one another at end. The core of the book is the total destruction of a potential family unit ruthlessly: Karla’s, the woman who was his mistress (Eileen Atkins) and a daughter, now a permanent inhabit of a mental asylum. Karla is caught because he wants to reach the pathetic daughter. In that one a (much weaker) Peter Gwilliam says to Smiley something like ‘perk up,” you won.” To which Guiness says: “Did I?”
Well this core complicated apprehension was the idea at the heart of this film too. Loyalty: Smiley was loyal to his organziation, his institution in all three films (77 Tinker Tailor, 82 Smiley’s People and now this). Le Carre has said Smiley is not a hero, and should not be admired. In an interview in 1982 LeCarre said:
Another reason for my impatience with George Smiley is that I am no longer able to resolve his excuses. There is something specious to me now about his moral posture. . . . We Empire Babies were brought up thinking that we messed with things so that others could have clean hands. But I believe that someone who delivers up responsibility for his moral conscience is actually someone who hasn’t got one.
Le Carre apparently thinks in heroic terms: “Real heroism lies, as it always will, not in conformity or even patriotism, but in acts of solitary moral courage.” Who’s a hero and who’s not.
An intelligent critic of LeCarre’s Smiley stories (Myron Aronoff) has written on this: “One might also ask whether Smiley’s anguished soul-searching mitigated the consequences of his actions? Is it preferable to withdraw from the arena & leave unsavory activities to those who lack moral scruples & who are therefore untroubled by the ethical implications of their actions.”
This is the old problem Thomas More saw in Utopia and Robert Bolt repeated in A Man for All Seasons. Co-opted if you join in, only shaping or modifying events, destroyed probably if once you come in, you opt out, unless you can flee very far.
I say, well yes — so did More, so does LeCarre through the books. It does matter for there is no hope if you don’t, and in this 2011 film Strong, Firth, Oldman, Tom Hardy all grieve over their actions. They all regret what they have done and what they continue to do. What I liked about the Boorman/Davies Tailor of Panama was Geoffrey Rush as the Jewish tailor gone anglophilic regretted intensely much of what he did and was an utterly unheroic (even dancing with the he-man star type, Pierre Bosnan, a Double o7 type).
Regret for one’s life as lived, remorse is central to all LeCarre’s best fictions. LeCarre bettered Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in his book and this film took that one step further.
The point of LeCarre’s fiction to start with was to counter the absurdity of James Bond films. I fear in that vast audience of people (every seat in the house taken ladies and gentlemen) many will not come away understanding this at all. That’s the worst of it, along with the minimum portrayal of women.