John Hurt again, or ‘Don’t trust Men in suits!’

by TheLitCritGuy


After last week’s rant I decided that maybe I should do something for this week’s blog that didn’t drive me close to the brink of insanity. I need something that is calmer…more sedate and emotionally stable. A film adaptation that is just more…British. You see, there are a few things that the British do well, namely things like grey skies, subtle betrayal, soul crushing bureaucracy and passive aggressive mistrust. With that in mind, this week’s blog is on one of the best films from last year, ‘Tinker Tailor Solider Spy,’ based on the 1974 novel of the same name by John Le Carre.

As per usual I’m going to give a quick outline of the plot without any major spoilers but unlike some of the films that have been discussed here the plot really won’t take all that long. The film follows the semi-retired spy George Smiley who is brought back into the world of British espionage by the head of the British intelligence ‘Control’ played by John Hurt, (him again) to track down a spy from the KGB who has managed to worm their way to the top of the intelligence service, aka the circus. And that really, is about that in terms of plot. But for all that apparent simplicity, the plot is a complex and richly detailed populated by strong and well developed characters. The atmosphere is rigid with paranoia and mistrust as people who have spent their lives lying for a living are rendered incapable of trusting anyone.

Let’s get the easy part out of the way first of all – this film is simply brilliant and to pick up on a few things as highlights feels unfair but for the sake of space I’m going to have to be a little selective rather than spend hours gushing over the whole thing – don’t want to be accused of being a fanboy now do I?

So, consider this next section a selection of the film’s good points rather than detailing them all and if you haven’t seen the film yet – go! Watch! You’ll thank me for it, and you’ll get to see Gary Oldman give the performance that landed him the lifetime achievement BAFTA award. He is probably the best thing performance wise in the film perfectly capturing George Smiley – a dour, taciturn man abandoned by his wife, losing his health and drawn back into the murky world of sabotage because he simply doesn’t have anywhere else to go. His performance is captivating, even though for much of the film Smiley doesn’t have anything to say. He’s man obsessed with watching and observing and Gary Oldman is just brilliant to watch – forget James Bond, the best British spy is a late middle aged man with big glasses who doesn’t say a great deal. The rest of the cast reads like a who’s who in British acting and to pull a quote from this outstanding review, ‘anyone who doesn’t have multiple Oscar wins and nominations, should have. Actors watch this the way that regular people watch porn.’

Even the smaller parts are great; Cathy Burke and Roger Lloyd-Pack make an impression in smaller roles and the ensemble cast all click. My personal favorites are Mark Strong as a spy who is injured and starts teaching, instantly becoming the coolest teacher ever, and John Hurt is simply magnificent as the head of the service, ‘Control.’

There is not just a great cast either; Tomas Alfredson the director does a great job of re-creating the world of Cold War Era Britain, with costuming and design expertly done. The whole film looks old fashioned and sepia toned, rooms full of curling smoke from cigarettes and pipes adorned with seventies decor. The look of the film is wonderful with imaginative cinematography and camera work that manages to make what is basically men in suits talk to each other in rooms for two and a half hours, incredibly fascinating to watch.

Well I think I’ve been pretty clear that I think this may be a very good movie, rather understanding things given how much I’ve raved about it. So how does this match up as an adaptation? Well, really very well indeed actually, and for that a lot of the credit has to go with the script and the people who wrote it.

To be honest I think it’s only right to give kudos where it’s due and the script manages to keep large swathes of dialogue from the book, staying true to the integrity of the novel. However the film manages the often missed trick of translating words into images. Too often literary adaptations tend to feel unwieldy and laden down with too much exposition and dialogue as a way of preserving the source material and as a way of keeping the film as close to the world of the novel as possible. Austen adaptations spring to mind, with the voice overs and many other adaptations have to use techniques like pre-action scrolling exposition, or omniscient narrators. Whilst these techniques are good they always seemed like a way of replicating the literary on film using the techniques of the writer rather than of a film maker. Here, however, the writers have managed to keep true to the story by using the techniques and language of film rather than things that seem more overtly ‘literary.’ I also like that it’s a film that understands the power of silence, leaving quiet moments that force the audience to pay attention to more of the film’s elements than just what the actors are saying, so things like shot composition, body language, gesture and even glances take on more significance.

The script was written by the husband and wife team Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Conner. Tragically, before filming was completed Bridget O’Conner passed away and never got to see the work of art she helped create. The film is dedicated to her, as is the BAFTA her partner emotionally collected when it won for best adapted screenplay last year.

In short this is just fantastic film making – taking a great novel and translating it into a cinematic experience that showcases the source material in an interesting and artistic method. And no, I won’t tell you who the mole is, but if you can work it out before the reveal give yourself a clap on the back. I could probably go on more about this and if I knew more about the techniques of film making I’m sure you could teach a class on all the ways this film is well structured but I’ll finish by saying this; as a film fan it’s an engrossing and intelligent movie, and as a book it is a top notch, taut and tense spy thriller by one of the best writers in Britain. It is simply a joy to see high grade and sophisticated source material handled by people who are clearly very good at what they do the writers, the actors and the director all get to show off their quality. So, really – what’s not to like?