A few months ago, I read John Le Carré’s classic spy novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, A few days ago, I finished the lengthy process of watching the BBC’s 1979 TV mini-series based on the book. And the night before last, I watched the 2011 film adaptation.
It’s very good.
The big surprise for me was how closely it emulated the feel of both the original novel and the BBC version. Although it’s not a particularly long film — a few minutes over two hours — it successfully hits every single key point of the novel, not missing out on any major plot-strand or character, and it does it all without feeling at all rushed.
The only way that I felt the atmosphere was not quite right was in presenting a much more modern and clean looking Circus than the dingy offices described in the book and portrayed in the mini-series — it’s a look that, in those brief sections of the film, owes more to the James Bond conception of MI6 than to Le Carré’s experience of the real thing.
Gary Oldman makes a good Smiley — looking very much like a younger Michael Caine, and sounding at times astonishingly like Alec Guinness. I wonder, though, whether he looks a little too striking to quite convince in the role. Guinness appeared shorter, and dumpier, and generally less commanding, all of which suits the character perfectly: “Small, podgy and at best middle-aged, he was by appearance one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth.”
What works best is the subtle and resigned sense of suspicion — the feeling that all the characters tacitly acknowledge the possibility that one of them was a Russian mole all along, even though they have no idea of which one. No-one seems shocked by the idea, only saddened. When the culprit is finally identified, the overwhelming feeling is that his colleagues are disappointed in him rather than angry.
Now that I have read the book and seen both the TV series and the film, I think I finally understand the plot, which is pretty labyrinthine. I’m minded to go back and re-read the book, in fact, with more sense of what’s going on this time.
But for someone coming to Tinker Tailor for the first time, the film might even be the best way into it. I’m certainly glad to have seen it.