Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

What would it be like if a Swede made a classic British spy movie? Well, we found out.

One of the things I liked most about this version of Tinker, Tailor… was that it was a visually convincing portrayal of Britain. The cinema is always in the business of constructing a mythic past or present, and in the UK, there are basically four historical eras in the eyes of the movies. One is Will Shakespeare and before, the age when everything was brown except the crown jewels and the sword blades. Another runs from the deer parks of the 18th century to the 1930s and basically celebrates everything posh. It’s the world of Mary Poppins and a million takes on Jane Eyre. Then there’s Blitz Grim, which runs from the outbreak of war through to the miners’ strike or thereabouts as if the bombs had never stopped falling. And then there’s Shiny World, which picks up in the late Thatcher era and runs through to now.

The problem with this is that the UK is the only European country where the post-war consensus is depicted as looking like shit. I suspect that class is behind this; the people who weren’t rolling in prosperity and unrivalled possibility in those years were exactly the old-fashioned upper middle class that gave us someone like Control as played by John Hurt, a pseudo-academic spook in a studiedly tatty silk near-kimono. He doesn’t dress like that because he’s poor, after all, but because he can. Smiley and his colleagues are much the same, marinating in cod-Oxbridge shabby-library kitsch in chilly flats in Hampstead, plunging into Highgate Ponds, dressing in expensive-but-fashionless tailoring.

But Tomas Alfredson shows early 1970s London as a city with tatty look-and-feel but fleets of brand-new cars (hey! it was the golden era of the British sports car! nobody feels existentially crushed by decline and runs out to buy a MGB roadster!), ruled by a government with uncared-for buildings but a more than generous budget for the technology of spookery and bureaucracy. This suggests he may have read a book or two before starting out. In fact, the intelligence world’s budget is nothing as to Alfredson’s budget for sets – the enormous, hugely detailed archives and secure conference centre are amazingly impressive, and permit him to put the audience in the point of view of a highly classified file making its way through the system.

Of course, London is always like that. There is a long history of new arrivals writing about the noise! and the smog! and the prices! and how do they live like that! and then, in their next letter home, declaring that all their friends had better hurry up as it might not last. These days, Smiley might have moved his skunk-works mole hunt into a Regus serviced-office block in Shoreditch rather than a rotten railway hotel around the old Broad Street station. The paranoia would have to float through the air conditioning in the spirit of J.G. Ballard rather than give the walls uncanny life in that of M.R. James. But it wouldn’t be all that different.

Neither would the politics, in some ways. One reading of the plot is that the loyal British spies and the pro-Soviet moles are in a sort of unconscious conspiracy. The original scheme is to get information from a Hungarian defector that will induce the Americans to share more intelligence with the British. But the moles, who are deliberately providing the British with information to get them to keep the defector case running, also hope that the Americans will be impressed enough to share, so they can get their hands on whatever they do share. After all, the British are deliberately passing information back to the Hungarians to protect the agent’s cover. In what way, then, are their aims actually opposed? The distinction between loyalty and betrayal is a question of the terms-of-trade.

Interestingly, we now know that while John Le Carré/David Cornwell was writing the book, the whole issue had blown up and the Americans had cut off signals intelligence sharing with the UK over prime minister Edward Heath’s refusal to let SR71 reconnaissance flights over the battles of the Yom Kippur war land at the British base in Cyprus. Specifically, Heath and his foreign minister Alec Douglas-Home were concerned that the Americans would pass the information to the Israelis, forcing the UK to take sides in the conflict. The Americans refused to give this assurance and the landing rights were refused, and the US flew the missions anyway using dozens of air-to-air refuelling tankers. As it happened, the Israelis weren’t being entirely honest with the Americans in exchange for the use of the photos, and the Americans were severely embarrassed, leading them to patch up the row with the UK quickly once it was all over.

So the British and the Russians (including the Hungarians) are willing to go to any lengths in order to influence the Americans. The other big target is of course the British Government, specifically the Treasury and SIS’s parent ministry, the Foreign Office. Ironically, the moles are as keen as the loyal to fight the good bureaucratic fight, and both sides want to do so by scoring off the Americans. If anything they mistrust the mainline civil service even more than they do Karla. There is a brilliant moment when the suspected mole, Alleline, spits at a senior civil servant that “None of your civil servants lost their lives!” – in Britain, the intelligence and diplomatic services are technically “crown servants”, without the independent professional status or final access to the highest peaks of power reserved for the civil service proper.

There are other things that haven’t changed much. Gary Oldman’s diction was so perfectly establishmentarian that I missed the first reference to what sounded like “Pseare” but was of course SERE, the survival, evasion, resistance to interrogation, and escape training course that Donald Rumsfeld’s agents re-purposed to create a wholesale torture capability after 2001.

Some other points…who didn’t love the government minister, very much the motorway-building go-ahead bulldozer of the Heathite Tory imagination, who plays a vigorous bout of squash in his Fred Perrys and immediately afterwards sparks up a gasper? It was also hard to avoid thinking that it was the Cold War that made Britain European, a time of civil service linguists and the BBC World Service. And finally, this is a slow movie, as slow as paranoia, well likened to the Godfather. Time stacks up, thickens, intensifies.

12 thoughts on “Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

  1. It looks fantastic.
    There’s CGI all through, no doubt. But two shots atuck with me, both involving animals, both excellently done.
    The first, where a bee buzzes around inside the car before being let out the passenger window, establishes the underwritten character of Mendel more effectively than any dialogue. He’s a good man, brought out of honest retirement. If you want a character reference, ask the bee.
    The second, where Jim Prideaux brutally dispatches a bird let loose in his prep school classroom, establishes that he is a man of violent action and is also utterly repressed. This is how he responds to uncontrolled disturbance.

    It’s an encouraging future for CGI, I think. Big movies about exploding robots will use their budgets to push the boundaries. And grownup directors will take the advances in technology and deploy them like this: artfully, to serve character.
    I liked “Let The Right One In”.
    I loved this.

  2. You mentioned the cars, Alex.
    I was surprised at myself, how much the Citroen DS irritated me. I little too wankily iconic, that car.

  3. The sets were (generally) very good but I really didn’t buy the idea of the Circus having open-plan offices… and the little pointless changes annoyed me. Why Hungary, rather than Czechoslovakia? Why replace Peter Guillam’s “network of girlfriends, none of whom were, as the jargon has it, inter-conscious”, with a live-in schoolteacher lover? Why the sudden and implausible reference to the Americans torturing Karla in India in the 1950s before handing him over to Smiley?

    The second, where Jim Prideaux brutally dispatches a bird let loose in his prep school classroom, establishes that he is a man of violent action and is also utterly repressed.

    And this is another little change: in the book, the owl flutters out of the chimney and thrashes around the classroom, breaking its wing, and Jim gathers it together gently and takes it out of the room and (offscreen, unseen by the reader and by the boys) wrings its neck to put it out of its misery. If that’s your character-establishing moment then it’s very different to the character that the SNAP and horrified reaction of Roach establish, as Jim kills the bird brutally in front of the class simply, as you say, because it’s in his way and it’s causing a fuss. And since it’s a very deliberate parallel to what happens to Haydon, it puts a very different light on the end of the film.

    The bit they got absolutely right, and the high point of the film for me because it was so unexpected and note-perfect: the Christmas party.

  4. I wonder if they’re planning a sequel? Either of the sequels?
    And I wonder if they’ll bring back Patrick Stewart as Karla?

  5. Yeah that torture reference did stick out as straying from the period setting and reaching for a bit of contemporary resonance. Perhaps they were compensating for another thing left out from the book: Haydon’s anti-americanism. In the original version, he’s seething about being cheated of his born-to-rule birthright by a bunch of vulgarians. In this version, it’s watered down to a vague aesthetic distaste for “the West”. I guess the idea of a Brit with an expectation of something other than subservient status would require too much explanation for a modern audience.

  6. He wasn’t tortured in India; he was tortured at some point in the past, and later recalled to Moscow as part of an off-stage power struggle in the Centre (which he presumably won). En route, he had a 24 hour lay-over in New Delhi and Smiley was deputed to try to recruit him during this period.

  7. I thought its slowness was the really interesting thing about it. Its slowness isn’t quite the right way of putting it though, I think. It’s more that, because almost all the action is recounted, rather than it having the conventional drive of a thriller, it was backward-looking, had the sense of an unravelling, a disentanglement. That’s not, for example, my memory of the TV series where, I think, because it wasn’t so compressed, the sense you had that you were moving from being told about one thing that had happened to another wasn’t so pronounced.

  8. He wasn’t tortured in India; he was tortured at some point in the past, and later recalled to Moscow as part of an off-stage power struggle in the Centre (which he presumably won). En route, he had a 24 hour lay-over in New Delhi and Smiley was deputed to try to recruit him during this period.

    In the book, sure. In the film Smiley explicitly mentions that he meets Karla in Delhi after the Americans have already tried torturing him by pulling out his fingernails.

  9. Wouldn’t you know, the stupider Hitchens hated it.

    He makes a good point about the molehunt material left lying around in Control’s flat. But I suspect he dislikes the film far more for its European feel. I can picture him filing out of the cinema as Charles Trenet does “La Mer” over the credits, looking even more constipated than he usually does.

  10. Hitchens does make a lot of good points. Smiley swimming every morning in Highgate Ponds is really pretty odd.

    And the whole point about Jim Prideaux getting shot is that it’s supposed to be a deliberate move by Karla to discredit Control – to make it look as though Control planned this pirate operation and it went wrong because he’s old and past it and needs to be shuffled off. Even Control himself wouldn’t be sure that that isn’t what happened.

    If Jim Prideaux is sitting harmlessly drinking coffee and gets shot and arrested, the first thing that Control or any British intelligence officer is going to ask is “how the hell did they know about Jim?”

    And I am really puzzled as to why Thesiger got killed like that. Makes no sense.

    As I say, when they go to the trouble of doing some bits almost word for word from the book, you have to wonder why they made all those pointless changes.

  11. early 1970s London as a city with tatty look-and-feel but fleets of brand-new cars

    The Life on Mars problem: you’re trying to give your locations an authentic British 70s feel, but the only cars available that haven’t been sent to the scrapyard or rusted into nothingness are now collectors’ items, and mostly beneficiaries of having been sequestered from moisture. As a result, they look far too well-kept by comparison with, say, the cars of Get Carter. (Where would you find tatty Austin Allegros and Hillman Imps these days? No idea. The DS is different: it may have come from the people on Roupell Street in Waterloo who park old Citroëns out all the time.)

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