Review – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

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My hand has been forced. I must divert from my usual flowery nonsense to write what will probably seem to be a rather scathing attack on the recent release: Tinker Tailor, Soldier Spy (TTSS). While I am no professional film critic, I do watch more films than your average 22 year old, I studied Spy Fiction in my Literature course at University and specialised on TTSS for my final exams. I know the book back to front and I am one of the few people who sat through the 7 hour BBC series, totally absorbed.

I have a lot of criticisms of the new film adaptation so in order to prevent this from being an unstructured rant, i’ll start by going through the casting. And who better to start with than George Smiley himself. I’ll never really understand the public’s love affair with Gary Oldman, I have always found him rather underwhelming. My horrified reaction to his overly-jovial Sirius Black was put into perspective when I saw his portrayal of Smiley.

Smiley is the anti-hero, placid and unobtrusive like his name and often overlooked. He is supposed to be a kind man who has obvious weaknesses, most especially his devotion to his adulterous wife Ann. However that sense of loyalty is one of his redeeming features, especially when applied to his sentiments towards the Circus, ‘out of date but loyal to his time’. Alec Guinness brought forth his fragility and quiet intelligence perfectly. I’m afraid the same cannot be said for Oldman.

Oldman’s Smiley lacked the human factor, at times appearing more like a robot. It didn’t help that his face seemed to be frozen in a death mask of white powder. None of his character escaped through. Obviously we must allow that in a two hour film, this is hard, but perhaps giving him just a few more lines would have helped. Something about the way he was dressed and made up was reminiscent of Bill Nighy, giving him an air of the ludicrous, which Smiley certainly never had. Despite everything, Smiley’s perspicacity had been vital in the Circus – ‘No one was taken on without his nod, no one trained without his signature on the schedule’. And Gary Oldman did not come across as a man who was in charge, instead his Smiley seemed to wander around the Circus, almost lost. When he was forced to take early retirement, it hit Smiley hard. He was at a loss, another sentiment that we never saw. Though there was time for multiple scenes of him swimming in some murky river (I won’t even go into how ridiculous that was), there was no time to show his sadness, to show a man trying to come to terms with the fact that he was no longer indispensable

On Colin Firth as Bill Haydon: Dont get me wrong I love Colin Firth. I think he’s an amazing actor, but he’s just too ‘nice’. He is plausible as a weak character, yes, but not as a man capable of playing a double agent for so long, a man capable of turning against his best friend and possible lover. Living a double life would not have been new to Haydon, all homosexuals had to live a double life in the times when homosexuality was illegal. I’m sorry Colin but it doesn’t ring true, he is too easy to read, too open to be ‘Gerald’. There isn’t enough time to develop his character at all. Without reading the book, what explanation is given for his treachery? The viewer cannot possibly understand his elite background – a child of the Empire no less, believing themselves to be the ruling class at home (with servants) and abroad. His increasing spite towards the US as it took centre stage, thrusting Britain to a mere second, provoked his actions.

Haydon is supposed to be the golden boy that everyone, men and women, love. I suppose they tried to portray this with his little conversation with ‘Belinda’. They failed, instead it seemed like a very fumbling and awkward flirtation that no one would honestly believe would succeed! Nothing like the Haydon who was described as a man that women would literally bow down before. Colin Firth persisted with a little ‘cheeky’ smile throughout the film, which I suppose he meant to be flirtatious (see photo on left) It was merely disturbing. I’m not saying he shouldn’t smile, just that that particular smile should not be aired again. Haydon was supposed to have a certain artistic arrogance which Firth certainly didn’t carry off and the wardrobe department ignored the fact that he dressed with customary dottiness. I suppose it would be too much to ask for a little colour to be splashed on the film.

Toby Jones as Alleline and David Dencik as Esterhase.  Jones appeared too evil, Alleline was never evil, just so wrapped up in his ambition that he never questioned his sources. It is commented in the novel that Percy Alleline would sell his mother for a knighthood and he is described by Control as a parade horse and a womaniser. Jones hardly fits the description, he seems to brooding and melancholy to be out trying to network and improve his contacts.

I’m not quite sure on why they insisted on calling  Esterhazy, Esterhouse? Also, half way through the film, one of the actors accidentally called him ‘Poor House’ instead of Poorman, obviously muddling his name with his code name. I was rather surprised they didn’t edit that out. In general Dencik is a good actor, the way he broke down when faced with the possibility of being sent out of England was touching however completely out of character for Esterhase. Dencik (or the directors) made him far too human. In reality Esterhase tells Smiley everything when he realises he is backed by Whitehall and has nothing to gain by remaining loyal to Alleline – he is calculating and ambitious and never lets anyone in. I’m still not sure what was happening in the scene where he and Smiley appear to be nearly run down by a plane…

Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam: I know Cumberbatch is in his 30’s, but let’s be honest, he looks like he’s just left school. Despite the flexibility of ages in the Karla trilogy, Guillam is around 40yrs old, not 19. Anyway, he looked far too young, gentle, innocent even, to be the head of the scalp hunters: the most violent division of the service, hidden out in brixton behind barbed wire and broken glass. Guillam has little reason to be in the Circus, so to openly request to visit documents would have been out of the question. In the novel he feigns a trip to a bathroom, enters another room and steals the papers, all the while in serious danger if someone were to find him. This was not portrayed by Cumberbatch at all.

In reality he was sleeping with a young, and very female student. The decision to make him homosexual was questionable, especially given the lack of devotion to the undertones of homosexuality throughout the rest of the film. It almost feels like they just flung it in there at random without caring where they aimed. The previous head of the scalp hunters was Jim Prideaux, played here by Mark Strong. Once again a bit of a let down. Prideaux was supposed to be athletic and tough – instead he comes across as weedy. Perhaps my opinion was influenced by having just seen him the previous day as Lord Conroy when re-watching the Young Victoria. However everything about him and the school felt off, especially ‘Jumbo’ Roach who came across as a semi-retarded child whereas he was supposed to be insightful and clever, and was disliked for being overweight and rich.

For those of you who thought Miranda Hart was playing Connie Sachs, it was actually Kathy Burke. The Secret Service was very much dominated by the upper class in those days and as such Burke’s portrayal was all wrong; from her dishevelled grungy look to her  common accent. The scene where Smiley pays her a visit is uncomfortable and once again unnecessary. Why they would be sitting in a living room watching students grind against each other defeats me. I suppose the director was trying to contrast the lust of the students with the older, sexually dried up pair, but once again it just seemed awkward. Sachs was played by Beryl Reid in the TV series and I have included photos which I think speak for themselves.

Roger Lloyd-Pack as Mendel: In all honesty, I can’t even remember who Mendel was in the novel, at any rate he wasn’t a major character. To include him in the film felt a little like they were trying to add another famous face to the mix without any real purpose. He hardly made an appearance except when he was fiddling around with bees, one of which followed him into the car and bored us to death with a totally unnecessary scene where the bee buzzed around. Three minutes of the film which could have been used for character development rather than trying to give it an ‘arty’ feel.

I’m not here to pour criticism on what many must consider a work of art. There were some casting decisions that weren’t absolute disasters! The choice of someone as absolutely stunning as Svetlana Khodchenkova for Irina was not surprising – somehow films always try to glamourise it’s characters. In all honesty she looked like she belonged in a Bond film, not Le Carre. However, despite this, I rather liked her performance, she is a very powerful actor. I surprised myself by enjoying the scene in the hotel where Tarr observes from the window of the opposite building. I could make a snide comment about inserting graphic sex for no reason, however it fused well in the moment. It heightened the feeling of being with Tarr, observing an intimate and personal scene from the outside.

The choice of Ciaran Hinds for Roy Blandwas another good fit, he looked the part and though he didn’t figure in the script enough to really be able to prove himself, I suspect he would have done very well as the ‘working class hero’, recruited by Smiley all that time ago.

John Hurt as Control was one of the few characterisations I heartily approved of. He was perfect.  The immense weight that he carried and the sadness he felt at being the last great spymaster etched in the lines on his face and emanated from his tired eyes. One can imagine him brooding away in his flat, moving the chess pieces around, trying to solve his last and greatest riddle. He suspected everyone, even Smiley with whom he was ‘close as thieves’.
The actor who plays Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) was also wonderful – he was an ideal scalp hunter – tough looking yet intelligent and constantly aware of the danger he was in. He was also handsome enough to match Khodchenkova’s looks without her love for him appearing unrealistic.

Now where on earth was Ann Smiley? Perhaps the directors realised that they couldn’t trump Sian Phillips. It would have been a clever move to not show her at all, in the same way Maris is never shown in Frasier. She never actually appears in the book, an absent player, described by Le Carre as ‘the last illusion of an illusionless man’.  However the flashbacks to the party that showed the back of her head and her backside being caressed by Haydon’s hand, meant she was neither there nor not there – in a sort of limbo. On the subject of the party flashbacks – it seems that they decided to use that scene as a tool to explain the relationships between the various players in the story and show their personalities. This, I feel was a tragic fail. It didn’t ring right and the minutes they wasted on stupid, irrelevant scenes like the Soviet Santa Clause and the Russian singing could have been put to better use. It was a little absurd, a scene of forced gaiety, especially in contrast to the bleak mood of the rest of the film. The worst part is that we not only have to see the scene once but are forced to revisit it over and over again.

Enough with the casting, i’d now like to quickly discuss the mood of the film, and a couple more scenes which both disappointed and impressed. As I mentioned before, there are a lot of scenes (the fly in the car, Smiley swimming around in a cold looking river) which I personally felt detracted from the movie and took up precious minutes which could be put to better use. I understand that the director was probably trying to set the mood, however at times I almost felt like it would be better judged in the Tate Modern than in a Film Festival, such was the alternative and arty vibe to it. The whole film seemed depressingly dark – now I know England has a reputation for being permanently grey and rainy, but we do have quite a few days of sun! And this wasn’t Victorian Britain coated with soot from factories, so where was the colour? They are clearly trying to spoon feed us with a sense of disquiet and fear. These feelings however are best achieved in their own right and are more effective when you least expect them. How can you not expect something bad to be about to happen in this film where bleakness seeps into every scene.

It just seems too artificial, too much like a set, especially the Circus offices. Why on earth are they all working on what appears to be a warehouse?! I couldn’t stop laughing every time they showed it. The whole point of Intelligence offices is that they are supposed to look as normal as possible. Boring even, in order to blend in. Instead we have what looks more like a construction site with a service lift. The type in which people tend to get knocked off in bad horror films. And meeting that take place in pods with metal shutters. The whole thing is absurd. A building like that would be immediately noticeable in the centre of London, and I can’t imagine many of the staff would be too happy about working in such primitive conditions.

I don’t understand why they changed the shooting of Prideaux. He was supposed to be ambushed and then shot deep in the Czechoslovakian woods, instead there is an implausible shoot out in an elegant cafe where the waiters are armed with guns. Innocent bystanders look on and a mother cradling her baby is alive one minute and dead the next, the baby blissfully unaware that she has a gaping hole in her head. Scenes designed to shock – full of extravagant details for the eyes to feast on rather than making any sense.

There are few redeeming scenes. I liked the fact that they did not show Karla as they did in the TV series, instead focusing on Smiley’s face and expressions as he retells his close encounter. Although Patrick Stewart gave a wonderful performance, Karla is supposed to be absent from the drama. The story is not about the Soviets but the British and their internal problems. Karla is the scheming grand chess master whose effects we see but never the man – like watching the board without seeing the player who moves the pieces.

Actually, the way the 5 suspects – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Poorman and Beggarman – were made by Control into little heads on chess pieces was both subtle and insightful. That little effect was not in the novel or the TV series but it was a very clever allusion to the game that was being played.

The film received an 85% ‘Fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an 87 on Metacritic along with raving reviews in almost all the papers.

The truth is, the plot of the book is too complicated for a feature length film. Most of the critics seem to have given the film a top rating for having been able to do so, which is not the right reason to rate a film highly. Jonathan Romney of the Independent wrote ‘the script is a brilliant feat of condensation and restructuring’. It can’t just be the fact that they have squeezed a long plot into a film, it HAS to be a good film, which TTSS is just not, im afraid. Despite the complex plot lines, TTSS is essentially a character study, yet the film barely touches any of the characters in depth…

Anyone who had read the book, or seen the previous series must see it as a bitter disappointment. And the people who haven’t would either find it confusing, or enjoy that feeling of confusion, thinking that it is a spy novel after all, not realising that the plot is a masterpiece when you are able to understand and appreciate all aspects. David Edwards of the Daily Mirror described it as having ‘a final act that ends with a whimper, rather than a bang.’ As much as I am loathe to agree with the Daily Mirror, it was quite an astute  comment. The moment where Prideaux shoots Haydon is supposed to fraught with emotion and meaning: the real climax of the whole story. The sense of the the Circus as a private club is finally turned on it’s head – Prideaux is the only one who feels the correct measure of anger towards Haydon, for himself and for all the men he lost. However the seriousness of Haydon’s betrayal in the eyes of Prideaux can never be understood by the audience as their relationship was never truly explained. It feels like they just tagged this scene on the end as an afterthought.

The difference between the film and the book/ TV series is similar in a way to the difference between seeing falling snow and a snowflake. Essentially the same thing, the same composition, but one is blurry and dull, the other exquisitely intricate.

  • Anna
    February 7, 2012

    Part of me Loves the movie part of me hated it. But it made me want to read the book. And i so Loves the novel. And agree partly with your review. In My eyes i can understand the casting, but i think they wasted the actors explosiveness and strengthes, why they made guillame gay, i really cant understand, and on the otherhand i think they wasted Jims love for Bill. Such à shame……

  • Ashley Crompton
    August 27, 2012

    Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your review. Nice to read views from someone who knows the book so well. I enjoyed the film very much – but haven’t read the book yet. Your review, more than the film, has made me want to read it.

  • teresa spencer
    September 11, 2012

    I thought the movie was great
    I haven’t seen the previous works so I can’t compare them like you have. I am reading the book now and I am enjoying it very much and have The Honorable Schoolboy ready to read after.

  • Emilia Fortuna
    November 13, 2014

    Please don’t ever start a review with “I do watch more films than your average 22 year old”. It makes you sound like a pretentious tool

    I thought the movie was great and your review missed the point of a lot of the casting.

    • Sarah Alexandra George
      November 13, 2014

      Fair enough. Feel free to elaborate on the point of the casting. I was just explaining my opinion, having studied the novel.

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