LE CARRÉ DIEM: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

24 June, 2016 at 3:28 pm (film, le carré diem)

PREVIOUSLY: Ralph Fiennes does his African version of Sporloos, not in order to learn the truth about what happened to his wife, but to try and equal her in moral conviction.

CURRENTLY: It’s been four years since I worked on this project, but I’m planning on canceling Netflix in two days, so I figured that I better take a lazy Sunday and rewatch it and figure out if I can actually string some thoughts together on this project while I still have access to the film. So while this will still be dated as a post from 24 June (although my last draft was saved a year later on 18 July, 2017), it’s being written in a very different world of summer 2020, and I can already tell my preoccupations and references are going to be very different than the posts surrounding it.

One of the major influences in my current time-out-of-joint lifestyle is that while this project was started as a knock-off/homage of film blogger The Incredible Suit, the long-form themed film marathons in which I’m currently enmeshed mostly come via the dedicated service of Hashtag The Two Friends, Griffin Newman and David Sims of the Blank Check podcast. They are, as of this writing, analyzing the films of Nora Ephron and the Mission: Impossible series in their main podcast and their fan-supported side project respectively. But this morning I was listening to their guest appearance on Newcomers, a podcast by Nicole Byer and Lauren Lapkus journaling their first reactions delving into fan-favorite franchises to which they have no previous exposure. I had finally, after much haranguing by a section of my social circle, sat down and watched Jon Favreau’s extended riff on Sergio Leone, The Mandalorian. This, in turn, allowed me to listen to the Newcomers episode about the series, which I had previously skipped to avoid any major spoilers that had not already been lanced at me by Vulture‘s breathless coverage during its release.

Tinker Tailor Solider Spy promo character poster of Gary Oldman as George SmileyMany of the five-star reviews of Newcomers on Apple Podcasts are from Star Wars agnostics who enjoy the way in which Lapkus and Byer take the air out of the series’ self-seriousness. While I also enjoy their blithe responses, I do find myself bristling at some of their confusion as to the action, events, and characters in the media they have supposedly watched. Byers talks enough in her commentary about being on her phone during viewings that I have formed an unflattering assumption that part of the reason they don’t understand what’s going on is simply that they don’t really pay attention. If a given film trades more in impressionistic storytelling than spoon-fed narration, or isn’t made with a constant barrage of quick-cut montage, it seems that their attentions wander. What their guests have repeatedly told them is that part of the appeal of Star Wars has been a sense that the world is huge and complicated and details are alluded to without being fully explained. Filling in those gaps is why action figures and cosplay and videogames and fan-fiction from that brand have thrived so thoroughly: people have been engaged and frustrated enough by the unanswered questions to want to fill them in with their own creativity.

Re-watching Tinker, Tailor today after having listened to some mild Newcomers complaint about the pacing and long silences in Favreau’s Western pastiches (and mildly wondering about how badly they’d do at watching The Seven Samurai or The Magnificent Seven if they had a hard time watching a 29-minute adaptation, as neither “original” is particularly hurried storytelling), I could imagine their hypothetical frustrated confusion with it. The filmmaking is deliberately oblique for much of Tinker, Tailor. Eventually, some direct exposition is required to wrap things up, but director Alfredson regularly constructs scenes out of reactions to implied mechanical, functional dialogue that has been excised from the proceedings. This helps keep a degree of cliché from populating the dialogue — and the tropes are well-trod enough by this point in 2011, than many of them would be hoary at best — but also means that a substantial portion of the film is just sequences of characters musing on and processing moments that we haven’t been shown. Sometimes we are shown the relevant information later, but to someone without the patience or the mental jigsaw wherewithal to keep all the pieces floating until an opportunity to click them home suddenly presents itself, I suspect the movie would mostly be an exercise in frustration and alienation.

(Speaking of being enmeshed in the thought-process of evaluating films based on their place within a filmography, I and now finally interested in watching legendary flop The Snowman, Alfredson’s follow-up to Tinker, Tailor. I have only heard terrible things (Well… terrible things and fabulous memes…), along with speculation that the final edit was taken away from him, so any conclusion made about directorial intent could well be specious, but I have a suspicion that if he used a similar obtuse editing style in a film that wasn’t all about a fog of rumination and self-doubt, then it would just feel disjointed and absent.)

I previously had a difficult time watching this film because I had the Alec Guinness’ version from the BBC miniseries so deeply entrenched in my head, and found myself unable to separate my experience watching Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor from my memories of the former. Haven’t not rewatched Guinness in the subsequent four years, I was able to watch it this time comparing it more to the book than to a different adaptation. The film has two hearts, with a couple diversions. The first is the relationship between Colin Firth’s and Mark Strong’s characters. Strong’s shooting opens the film and his revenge is the penultimate action of the script, so it has some significant weight. In general, emotional attachments, loyalty and affection and how they can twist us up in knots, are the main engines of the film, which is why Tom Hardy’s character gets his cul-de-sac in the middle of the movie and why Benedict Cumberbatch’s Guillam is changed from being a lady-killer to being, in the words of Painless in M*A*S*H, a Don Juan as a cover for being a fairy.

But the primary and most vital engine in the story is that Smiley is so distracted by his wife’s infidelity to him that he can’t concentrate on the deceptions going on in his workplace. His implied social obligation to ignore the fact that Bill Hayden is sleeping with his wife also would mean that Smiley would overlook anything Hayden would do that was tradecraft suspicious out of fear that it was his personal feeling bleeding into his professional acumen. All based on Karla’s intuition of the vulnerability in Smiley’s marriage from an inscription on a lighter in an interview decades before. That’s what le Carré sets up: a roundabout psychological miasma that surrounds the narration and therefore delays the narrative. All based in an intuitive belief in a certain kind of English behaviour.

Alfredson, however, in his desire to cut the dreary, explanatory moments that would ring falsely to his ear in common-and-garden commercial filmmaking, almost entirely removes Smiley’s Ann from the picture. The most we get of her as an introduction is a shot from behind as she sits at a table with George and Bill makes eyes at her from a nearby seat. Prior to that, we’ve seen George put her unread, unopened mail in a pile and Connie has told us that she’s left him “again”. Her introduction during the Christmas party scene is obvious to me, as someone who’s read the novel a few times and watched the miniseries an equal number. I know who she is because her presence and absence hang heavily over the full-text proceedings. In this version, her echoes are supposed to be important, but aside from the envelopes and George waking up in a half-empty double bed, there’s no concrete evidence that she’s missing from his life. Otherwise, her back’s to the camera and her face largely invisible, and if George didn’t kiss her cheek and wish her a Merry Christmas (“Happy Christmas,” in ’60s England, surely?) we wouldn’t know that she wasn’t just one of the many officers in The Circus rounding out the cafeteria. This framing also potentially helps prevent us from fully clocking her rather audacious Christmas party dress, which we later see in meaningful close-up during a stolen moment… but because her presence is given so little spotlight in this first reminiscence, its reappearance could be confusing.

Katrina Vasilieva, with her back to the camera.

As of this writing, it is one hundred years since the beginning of the serial publication of The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. I had intended to rewatch Scorsese’s filmed version of the novel, as my initial review back in 1993 was that the film was an elegant companion piece to the book, but didn’t work as a stand-alone film. It was too entwined with depicting aspects of the prose without actually translating them in ways that someone unfamiliar with the text would appreciate or understand. At the time, I assumed — with no basis beyond instinct and my own proximity to the novel — that Scorsese was too close to the source to see what other people couldn’t see in his adaptation. I don’t know if this is a valid interpretation, but it was part of what I felt was wrong with Alfredson’s take on Tinker, Tailor as well. It feels to me that in her desire to establish atmosphere and eschew exposition, that he has created something that is so dependent on the armature of the source material that he can’t see that anyone not already possessed of that skeletal knowledge will just collapse into a fleshy heap while viewing this film.

That doesn’t explain quite why it did so well with critics, except that, well, that is the very audience who has been trained to wait for a film to explain itself, and has the patience to sit in a well-decorated fog with a degree of faith that everything might just come together in the end. And as Julio Iglesias strides through a dizzying number of sequential key changes to Charles Trenet’s “La Mer”, and George Smiley switches from a rumbled tan trenchcoat to a more tailored black one, the film really tries to give the impression that it has, in fact, built toward something.

NEXT: George has saved the reputation of the British intelligence system by rooting out Karla’s mole before they started providing US intelligence to the Russians. Post 9/11, we will see if Germany, in the person of Philip Seymour Hoffman, can heal its intelligence discord with the US.


Related Links:
Nick Jones did his own version of this retrospective marathon back in 2011 prior to the Tinker Tailor release.
+ David Boardwell has an excellent guide for anyone perplexed by Tinker, Taylor, and does me the great service of identifying le Carré’s cameo appearance at the Christmas party at the end of his analysis.
+ An anonymous blogger at “Kiss My Wonder Woman” unpacks their reaction to the transformation and presentation of Guillam as a gay man, while Leon Saunders Calvert digs into the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name between Strong’s and Firth’s characters in both its personal and political ramifications.

1 Comment

  1. LE CARRÉ DIEM: A Most Wanted Man | said,

    […] Commissioner Gordon ultimately takes over MI6 after discovering the Kingsman mole in his midst. Remember: everything is in […]

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