In the bleak days of the Cold War, espionage veteran George Smiley is forced out of semi-retirement to uncover a Soviet Agent within MI6's echelons.In the bleak days of the Cold War, espionage veteran George Smiley is forced out of semi-retirement to uncover a Soviet Agent within MI6's echelons.In the bleak days of the Cold War, espionage veteran George Smiley is forced out of semi-retirement to uncover a Soviet Agent within MI6's echelons.
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 red duchess
- Dec 7, 2000