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Although not as sympathetic or achingly romantic as 'The Russia House',
stunning TV adaptation is the closest the screen has gotten to the
world of John le Carre. Very few writers actually become so synonymous
their age that we look to their works to find out what a period of history
was like. When we think of the Cold War, and, most especially, the shabby
bureaucracy of British espionage, it is le Carre we think of.
What le Carre shares with Graham Greene, making him a million miles from the priapic fantasies of James Bond, is in showing how the Cold War literally degraded everyone. Fils like 'Ninotchka' like to show the massive disparity between the dour, repressive, monotonous Soviet Union and the glitteringly superficial, gaily materialist West. Le Carre suggests that both sides of the Iron Curtain are merely of the same coin, at the executive level at least. You expect to see 1980 Czechoslovakia as a run-down, provincial dump; but this film's England reminded me of Svankmajer's 'Alice', as it details a society, a system, an ethic, a code grinding towards inertia, a world becoming increasingly closed in that it can only be jabbed into life by shocks of betrayal.
This England is a pure mirror image of our stereotypes of the East - a system run by chilling, amoral men with perfect manners (the most frightening thing about the narrative is that any one of the suspects could have done it, each one has so lost any kind of basic humanity, never mind idealism, that it is almost irrelevant who the traitor is) gathering together in anonymous meeting rooms, or an endless rondelay of joyless dinners; a world of cramped, impersonal decor, generally sucked in by shadows, so that we can't even be sure it's men we see, or the flickering grin of the Cheshire Cat; a world of men, where one of the three female characters is an absent joke until the last five minutes, another is tortured and murdered by her superiors, and the third is sacked for competence, reduced to scraping money from grinds, a paralysed, blubbing outcast; a drab world where all colour and life has been seeped out, or goes by unnoticed, where jokes are bitter and grim, where the (very Soviet) elevator disrepair signals a wider, fundamental malaise.
If it's fun you want, get 'You Only Live Twice' - the action here is generated from its milieu - dank, meticulous, pedantic, slow, inexorable, unsensational. This is where a 6 hour TV adaptation has the edge on a feature film - cramming a le Carre plot into the latter can make it seem rushed and exciting; this film brings out all its civil-service ingloriousness superbly (although the figure of Karla is a little too SMERSHy for my tastes).
Bill Hayden says you can tell the soul of a nation from its intelligence service, and this film, despite the go-getting yuppie 80s or the success of heritage TV ('Jewel in the Crown', 'Brideshead Revisited') is perhaps the closest representation of a kind of soul, public school, Oxbridge, Whitehall, male. In equating this world with impotence and sterility (Smiley is childless), the material errs in equating homosexuality as the ultimate, literal inversion, a closing in, of minds, spirit etc.
But the metaphor of the betrayed friendship as representative of a wider betrayal is less a corny contrivance than an indication of how fundamentally incestuous this world is. These men slipping in and out of shadows are ghosts, fighting a war that doesn't exist, nitpicking over irrelevant ideological puzzles that have lost all meaning. The 'good' guys are no better than the bad - Peter Guillam, though dogged and loyal, is little more than a thug; Ricky Tarr is new yuppie incarnate in all his cocky repulsiveness.
Smiley, marvellously essayed by Alec Guinness - more obviously sharper than in the book, Hercules cleaning out the Aegean stables - loses even the barest traces of humanity, with vast reserves of calculated sadism and bureaucratic immorality, his thick glasses seeing all the detail and none of the big picture. Smiley needs the rules of the game more than anyone; without them he is left adrift in life, and the stupendous final shot shows how deeply that defeats him.
Unusually for TV, this is a film of rare visual imagination, not in the mistakenly flashy, spuriously 'cinematic' sense beloved of ambitious tyros, but in its exploration of the medium's claustrophobia, as it traps its protagonists, in particular the way the camera's point of view chillingly suggests somebody else looking on, spying on the spies, making everything we see provisional, especially the flashbacks, which elide as much as they reveal.
The book by John Le Carre is intricate and multi layered and to attempt to
film it was brave of the BBC. One wishes they had such courage these days,
but that is another story. It is a television masterpiece.
The acting is superb. Alec Guinness was made for the part of George Smiley. From his opening scene in a London bookshop to the last shot of his face he is mesmerising. The supporting cast are the cream of British actors at the time. Some of them only have one scene like John Standing, Beryl Reid, Joss Ackland and Nigel Stock but they become real people before your eyes. Ian Bannen as Jim Prideaux is particularly moving and Hewyl Bennett gives the performance of his life.Even the actors who don't say anything look just right.
It is plainly filmed but that adds to the atmosphere. On the face of it life is normal and ordinary but beneath there is betrayal, anguish, danger and pain. The motif of Russian dolls in the opening credits is good. Dolls with faces, then one without and then an emptiness. In the end Smiley solves the mystery but the mystery of life is beyond him.
The music is great,sparse but edgy. I can watch this time and again and still get something out of it.
There are few movies that follow the book. There is no end to the
comment, "The book was so much better." There is good reason for that
with some films. "The Lord of the Rings" would have been five movies if
you went "by the book". Interesting and enjoyable as that might be for
Tolkien fans, it was impossible for film makers. Yet, "Tailor, Tinker,
Soldier, Spy" as a movie defies that axiom.
Having read the book and seen the movie more than "several times", they still remain interconnected and indistinguishable. Yes, the book contains more detail, but may details are covered by innuendo, scene or background detail in the movie. Alec Guinness becomes Smiley so completely that his acting gives real meaning to the idea of a "character actor", even down to wiping his glasses with his tie. (you have to read the book for that one.)That is not to say, that Guinness is a robot and the movie is stiff in the name of faithfulness to the book, just the opposite.
The movie dawns the viewer in, just as the book draws in the reader, as part of the process of discovery; unraveling the mystery. As in a true "who done it" (or as one commentator put "who is it"), the viewer has no more foreknowledge than Smiley. You are introduced to all the characters, all have reasons to be the defector, all have reasons to distrust an investigation to the past, yet only one is ferreted-out.
The ending is consistent with the logic of the book and film, but, you still don't expect it. It's anti-climactic yet believable. The film, like to book, leaves one wondering how this could happen. It's thought provoking given many of the suspects comments thought-out the book/film. Both inspire thought more than resolution. The story challenges the reader/viewer to think and think well about the reasons for and purpose of spying as a whole. (The film is more English in cultural orientation, but the concept is universal, as many Americans have learned as well.)
A wonderful book transformed into visual. Great acting through-out, and you really hate all the right people....
I can only add to the other comments: this is a superb film. It is absolute proof that a TV mini-series can stand beside the best cinema films with honor. I have rarely paid $7.00 for just 87 minutes of anything this good. If I could vote on it, it would get a 9. The writing is rich; the acting, excellent; the theme, deep; the technical quality only slightly inhibited by a presumably small budget. When I consider the BBC's obsession with the mass market peddling of dull costume dramas, I cannot understand why this astringent tragedy is not available, at least in the US, on video or DVD. In about 20 years, this will have the sort of mythic reputation given to lost or damaged movies of the teens and twenties--more deservedly than most of them.
Sir Alec Guinness is so good at being George Smiley that John LeCarre claims he can no longer write the character about without seeing Guinness' face. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, and the script captures the novel almost flawlessly. It takes six hours because the story is complex and ranges over many years and many characters, but it is so well-written and acted that the any viewer with an attention span longer than that of a gnat can easily keep track of who did what and when, so that the ultimate unmasking of the traitor may be a surprise, but it is not a shock.
It is rare that an adaptation of a complex novel translates well to the
small screen. Often detail is eliminated for sake of time and the plot
loses aspects that are key to the real story.
The team of John Le Carre and John Irvin has created what may go down as the benchmark for the Spy story mini series. In six hours of television they lay out piece by piece the background of each of the characters in a slow and gentle manner enabling the viewer to capture a sense of both the person and the time in which they are placed.
Irvin permits the story to move in a 'typical English manner', with George Smiley, the principal character almost rolling along from one event to another. Alec Guinness is outstanding in this role and it seems the it was either written with him in mind or he was born for it. I suspect the later is more likely. Smiley and his quirks are key to unravelling what is a complex plot with the usual twists and turns of they spy genre.
The casting of the rest of the players is equally superb with an ensemble performance by the who's who of the English stage. The goodies are all flawed people while the badies, many of who are within the British Secret Intelligence Service, are bad in the way that only the English can truly be to each other.
If you enjoy Le Carre and are prepared to put in 6 hours to view the entire series you you will be richly rewarded.
Definitely in the BBC pantheon (alongside I Claudius and Pride and
Prejudice), partly for its formidable cast, but mainly for John Irvin's
directorial grip - a model of visual economy and uncompromising narrative
A double-agent or 'mole' is suspected at the top levels of the British secret service and retired spymaster Alec Guiness must narrow down the suspects amongst his former colleagues. Arthur Hopcraft's adaptation, while capturing the bureaucratic intrigue and perfidy of John Le Carre's novel, will demand viewers' utmost attention if they want to stay with the unfolding plot.
Irvin shoots Tinker, Tailor as if for widescreen - edge of the screen compositions, careful background detail - and demonstrates how a determined director can overcome the limitations of television(usually seen as a writer or producer's medium). Look at how he composes and cuts the scene where Guillam (Michael Jayston) is interrogated round the boardroom table towards the end of the first half. How Irvin provides deft little 'bookend' shots with the characters slowly walking away from camera.
Not that his sparse, pared-down style doesn't translate to action scenes with equal verve. The prologue - Ian Bannen's abortive mission into Czechoslovakia and its climatic chase through the forest - is as tense as anything you're likely to see on the big screen. Wintry settings and a fraught music score (mainly strings) add to this bleak, cynical vision.
Irvin landed the Hollywood actioner Dogs of War on the strength of Tinker, Tailor, but despite clever touches it didn't launch a notable cinema career. Look out, however, for his earlier television adaptation of Dickens' Hard Times. (For another example of very superior television direction, check out James Goldstone's handling of two first-season Star Trek episodes - 'Where No Man Has Gone Before' and 'What Are Little Made Of').
Author Le Carre may have topped Tinker,Tailor with a dazzling sequel (The Honourable Schoolboy, published 1977), but this is still far and away the best espionage suspenser ever televised. Indeed, it's hard to see how anything else, post Cold War, could quite match this relentless, ruthless dissection of personal and political betrayals.
Having just watched this film again (for about the tenth time) I am
moved to say that few adaptations have brought such a well crafted book
to the screen so brilliantly. Perhaps this was because the author also
provided the screenplay ?
The acting, direction, lighting are superb and the whole is only further enhanced by the haunting music of Burgon. The pace and suspense are every bit as thrilling as the book.
One tip for lovers of this movie : try and get a copy of the follow-up, namely Smiley's People. It takes over very gently from Tinker, Tailor and leads on to the ultimate conclusion of Smiley's career.
The BBC is to be commended for making 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'
(as well as 'Smiley's People') into fine adaptations for television.
Being very familiar with all three of the 'Karla' novels I have a few, very minor, quibbles as to casting and editing, but nothing that gets in the way of great enjoyment of the finished product.
Guinness was born to play Smiley, as others have already noted. I can't get enough of his laconic humor and monk-like habits. Simply with subtle, hardly discernible facial expressions, Guinness intimates vividly the mysterious, dangerous past Smiley has endured... and all the vile things he's had to do in the cause of, as he would put it, what is Right. Alexander Knox is fabulous as the "little serpent" Control, "No man's child" as Smiley's says of him. There are other "perfectly" cast parts in this adaptation. Anthony Bate's smarmy, infuriating Lacon is absolutely hateful at his every appearance, just as he is supposed to be; a sign of the masterful nuance of Mr Bate's performance. I also like Bernard Hepton's Toby Esterhase, though he exhibits more humor than the character actually possesses in the book.. but what a fine actor he is.
Michael Aldridge plays Percy Alleline as an exquisite, bureaucratic boob who will do anything, in the modern political way, to get to the top, purely for ego reasons. I also found Ian Richardson's Bill Hayden to be a fine fit between actor and character. Some of the smaller roles are done very well too. Fawn, played by one Alec Sabin, is the spitting (mental) image of the character as described in the book. A quiet, diminutive killer.
All of the acting is first rate but the actors are often a far cry from the physical descriptions in the books. Beryl Reid is wonderful as Connie Sachs, though not LARGE enough. Her scene is so fore-shortened in the film script that it hardly matters anyway. The same can be said of Ian Bannen who turns in perhaps my favorite performance in the whole thing, after Guinness's Smiley. But Bannen does not fit the description of Jim Prideaux very closely. However he is fully inside the character of the poor man he's portraying that it hardly matters if his hair is the wrong color.
The only bit of miscasting (in my opinion) was that of Michael Jayston as Peter Guillam. Jayston is too po-faced and humorless, overplaying the underlying traumatic neurosis Guillam has endured in his career. Jayston's limitations stand out slightly next to his co- horts but he's good enough to hold his own, up to a point. And he does rise to the occasion when the part demands something more substantial from his character, but Michael Byrne, the Peter Guillam in 'Smiley's People', seems much more in line with LeCarré's character from the books.
The great disappointment of the 'Smiley' series is that the BBC balked at filming in Hong Kong, choosing instead Lisbon. It works but it would have been so much better as LeCarré originally envisioned the story. By the same token it is a great loss to our lives that they skipped 'The Honourable Schoolboy' altogether, choosing to jump ahead to 'Smiley's People'. I assume that filming in Hong Kong (primarily), Vientiene, Bangkok, Phnom Pehn and Saigon was financially too daunting. A great shame all the same, especially when they had such a fine Jerry Westerby as Joss Ackland in 'Tinker, Tailor...'
In sum... the Smiley mini-series is a keeper to watch again and again.
This is not your usual spy / action story, . . .this is a story of
ordinary men within an extra-ordinary world that few, if any, of us
will ever be exposed to.
This is a thinking person's film, there are no setups, no story voice overs, you are required to really "watch" this story as it unfolds.
This story is an exploration of desire, anger, hatred, fear and respect, . . .it is a story of belief and manipulation, it is NOT James Bond.
This is "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" many, many years later, after a bitterness and loss have become a way of life.
This is one of the best films you will ever see.
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