18 January 2012

"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Starring: Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong
Based on the Novel by John le Carré
Screenplay by Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Theatrical Release Date: 6 January 2012 (U.S. wide release)
Date of Screening: 17 January 2012
Tinseltown Louisville
"That part of Smiley which survived [his divorce] was as incongruous to his appearance as love, or a taste for unrecognised poets: it was his profession, which was that of intelligence officer. It was a profession he enjoyed, and which mercifully provided him with colleagues equally obscure in character and origin. It also provided him with what he had once loved best in life: academic excursions into the mystery of human behaviour, disciplined by the practical application of his own deductions." - Call for the Dead
That was how John le Carré introduced the world to his leading protagonist, George Smiley, in the first few paragraphs of his debut novel in 1961. Gary Oldman is not short (as we're told Smiley is), but he does manage to affect Smiley's "waddle," he so thoroughly animates the forty-one year old literary character. The passage quoted above is the perfect summation of not only Smiley, but the world of le Carré. It is not a realm populated by high octane excitement. No one will be climbing the Burj Khalifa in a le  Carré story. The work of the intelligence community isn't the glamorous, sexy lifestyle of Fleming's Bond. Rather, it is mostly the tedious work of seasoned professionals sequestered in dark rooms poring over scraps of intelligence and learning when to jump at shadows and when to resist.

In this specific tale, veteran overseer of British Intelligence, "Control" (John Hurt) has deduced that his Soviet counterpart, Karla, has control of a mole at the highest level. He even knows it's one of five men...but which? It's a yarn that pits factions of agents at one another's throats, with ambition and fear driving the antagonism. Ultimately, it falls on venerable George Smiley (Gary Oldman)--himself implicated as one of the five possibilities--to sift through all the lies and half-truths and expose the real plot.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was le Carré's sixth novel to feature the world of George Smiley (his sixth overall, as well). Readers had, by then, acclimated to the author's slow burn approach to intrigue and suspense. The question that I had going into this was...what sense did it make to adapt Book #6 by itself? How would that play with audiences? Certainly, this is not the first time that any le Carré novel had been adapted; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy itself was made into a BBC TV mini-series starring Alec Guinness as Smiley. Still, I couldn't help shake the feeling that screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan had to walk quite a fine line between giving us the rich story from the source material and creating an "in" for audiences devoid of any familiarity. I saw the film with five friends, some of whom had seen the movie version of The Tailor of Panama but none of whom had ever read a le Carré novel. I was curious to see how they took to it.

The consensus was that there was an awful lot of information that called for at least one subsequent viewing before a final, decisive understanding could be had. Even having read the first four novels (I haven't quite gotten to Tinker yet myself), I found myself alternately excited and befuddled by various references and allusions. Thank God nobody said anything about Thomas Leamus or I may have missed several minutes of dialog before pulling myself out of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold recollections!

This is not to say that it's an impenetrably dense film. In point of fact, I found it quite accessible and so did my friends. Rather, there are so many details imbued into the source material, being the sixth in the series, that were included and treated as matters of fact that we clearly were in a very thoroughly crafted world. These are not the kinds of touches one finds in an original story. For instance, we are left to pick up that Smiley's wife, Ann, has not been particularly faithful over the years, having left him and returned only to leave him again. That seems the kind of thing that ought to be its own film; here, however, it's almost entirely peripheral. It comes up in conversation as easily as one might fit into exposition that Smiley prefers books to television for his recreation.

The effect all this has on the newcomer is that their interest is piqued by everything. Every allusion seems a potentially relevant plot thread of its own, and so my friends paid attention to as much as their brains could process. After the film, I heard various questions from each of them--some of which I could answer based on my readings, some I could answer from speculation and others eluded me entirely. This is not a particularly exciting story...and yet, it's wholly captivating in large part because the film is willing to treat its audience as adults capable of rewarding its deliberate pace with respectful attention. Le Carré requires a particular kind of investment from his reader (or viewer), but always rewards those willing to make it. This, perhaps, more than anything is the most glaring contribution I can trace to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but I'll refrain from exploring the le Carré/DS9 relationship further here.

One point that was raised by one of my friends was how she reacted any time a gun appeared on screen. We had seen Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol together just a few weeks ago, and gun play in that was par for the course. Here, however, it was jarring and inspired immediate apprehension and discomfort in us. It's curious how that can be; excessive violence is amusement, but just a little violence can be gruesome. "Less is more," I suppose.

I would be remiss not to also mention the film's soundtrack. Alberto Iglesias's measured score contributed greatly to the atmosphere...but was also willing to throw in some surprises along the way. Terrific stuff, and it's a soundtrack album I think I may just track down to add to my library at some point. I quite liked it.

Because we're in awards season, Focus Features currently has the screenplay available to download. I can't promise it will still be up after the Academy Awards are handed out 26 February so you'll want to snag it while you can.

Incidentally, Focus has already set a 20 March release for the Blu-ray Disc.

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