Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Well, I went to see it. I wasn’t expecting much. After all, it’s one of those remakes of something which was rather good in the first place.  And Gary Oldman just isn’t Alec Guinness, is he?

Gary Oldman, however, was extremely good.  The cast generally was splendid.  But whereas I was haunted for days when I watched the TV series, I didn’t give this film a second thought – except this thought, of course!

The chaps coming out of the cinema behind me rather summed it up.  One said to the other that he didn’t know the story, he didn’t really understand all of it, and whodunnit could have been any of them and it wouldn’t have made any difference.

They really pinpointed the problem.  The director had gone for arty shots of Smilely swimming in some pond or looking at railway lines (his hotel near Liverpool Street was actually closer to St Paul’s, but never mind) instead of concentrating on the detective skeleton of the novel.  TTSS is a classic ’tec story.  As such, you, the reader/ audience, have to engage with all the main protagonists so that you can be shocked when whodunnit is revealed.  And le Carre does it so well that the revelation is shocking.  Hereafter is a spoiler, so if you’re a TTSS virgin, stop reading now.

I wonder whether Colin Firth was picked because he resembles Kim Philby.  He’s a lovely actor (by the way, what happened to his brother Jonathan, also a lovely actor?), but he just didn’t get the chance to lull us into friendship with him, the way that Ian Richardson’s Haydon does.  We don’t know that he’s a connoisseur, a gregarious and interesting chap, a quintessential Englishman.  We don’t get the full force of the red herring that he’s Prideaux’s best friend (why did they say Preedo?  It’s Priddo, surely).  He’s not the priggish, self-important Percy Alleline, nor the weedy ‘is-he-to-be-trusted’ Esterhase or ambitious but slightly uncouth Bland.  (Why have someone as wonderful as Ciaran Hinds when you’re only going to give him two sentences???)  Haydon is the brightest, most charismatic boy – which is why his treachery is so devastating.  But in this film, when it’s revealed that he’s betrayed his country because he hates all the values of the West, we’re left with little more than ‘so what?’

There were lots of silly little things which aren’t much in themselves but add up to a grievance that the director et al. didn’t really know a) London, b) British politics, c) the Cold War and d) his characters.  Why change Czechoslovakia to Hungary?  Why involve the Minister directly?  Why was Peter Guillam gay (a question my brother and his partner asked)?   Why did they call him Toby Esterhaus (do they know nothing of Austro-Hungarian counts?)  Why did Alleline have a working-class Scots accent?  Why was the Circus grandly glamorous?  Why not trust the audience to notice Smiley’s change of specs in the flashbacks, and not waste time showing him going to the opticians?  In all, I’m sure about 5 minutes was wasted in arty shots and unnecessary bits – 5 minutes that could have been lent to characterising the big four – or even, as in the book and the TV series, Smiley interviewing each of them.

It wasn’t, as I’d prejudged, that Gary Oldman isn’t Alec Guinness; it’s that Colin Firth isn’t Ian Richardson.  This film has made me want to re-watch the TV series.  Sadly, it’s done the same to my bro and bro-in-law, so I can’t nick their DVDs.


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