Thursday, September 22, 2011

Shaken, Stirred and In Need of Therapy

Originally published in 1974 and originally adapted in 1979 as a seven-hour BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness, John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has been hailed as a classic of the spy genre and its references and themes have entered the realms of popular culture. The complex novel about retired operative George Smiley being called upon to flush out a Soviet mole that has inveigled his way to the upper echelons of the British secret service is not without its flaws, however. At certain points in le Carré's work, the convoluted plot becomes almost indecipherable and the storytelling repetitive and ponderous. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson of Let The Right One In fame and writers Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O Connor skilfully avoid these pitfalls in their enthralling and absorbing new big-screen adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which achieves an admirably coherent narrative structure without ever over-simplifying matters of international espionage.

Gary Oldman gives a stunning central performance as Smiley, a man whose calm and unassuming exterior belies his formidable intellect. He goes about discovering the one who is threatening to destabilise the Circus, the organisation that has been his life's work and for which he has sacrificed a great deal, quietly and patiently but with an unmistakable steel and determination. Oldman subtly captures the contradictions in Smiley's personality. Although an old-fashioned gentleman, he has moments of ruthlessness and rage as the truth about the Soviet mole slowly but surely unfolds before our eyes. The journey to discovery takes the audience not just to early 1970s London but to Istanbul, Budapest, Paris, Oxford and a public school in the English countryside. This, however, is most definitely not the world of James Bond with dry martinis and a girl in every port. Perhaps the film's greatest achievement is its deconstruction of the myth of the glamorous spy, which is one of the main themes in many of le Carré's books.

Shot in muted grey colours and with a creeping sense of unease from the very start, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is populated by disillusioned and alienated people living broken half-lives. This is particularly evident in Mark Strong's heartbreaking turn as Jim Prideaux who is forced to leave the Circus after a top-secret assignment in Budapest, that lies at the heart of the mystery of the Soviet mole, goes disastrously wrong. Prideaux is a life-long outsider for whom becoming a spy meant a sense of belonging and community and yet he ultimately discovers that it is unwise to trust in those for whom betrayal, deceit and duplicity are all in a day's work. The excellent supporting cast of Kathy Burke, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Stephen Graham and John Hurt play Circus employees at various levels who, having dedicated their lives to ensuring the safety of millions, ultimately reveal themselves to be sad and lonely figures who find coping with real life quite a burden. And the Circus ultimately reveals itself to be much like any other workplace where the workers constantly complain about not getting paid enough for the work they do and have embarrassing drunken encounters at the Christmas do.

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