Friday, September 16, 2011

Spy Games

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a fabulously well made film. You cannot fault it for technical proficiency or period detail. It has a stellar cast: Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones - French distributor Studio Canal has clearly spent top dollar on the sets, the cars and the clothes, and Swedish director Tomas Alfredson is still riding high on the wave of critical adoration that made his previous film, Let the Right One In, a crossover hit in 2008.

Maybe I didn't do the film any favours by literally reading the book this week.

Maybe it is unfair to compare the film with the television series, which is widely acknowledged as a classic of the format.


and it is with a heavy heart that I say this, I was disappointed.

Probably I built it up too much in my head - the laudatory quotes and five star reviews on the poster certainly didn't help - but that is how I felt.

Trying to be fair, maybe I need to see it again. I was disappointed by the film version of V for Vendetta the first time I saw it, but now consider it to be an interesting and entertaining piece of work in it's own right.

So, where to begin?

The cast, which looks so good on paper, like a football team struggling for form, never quite 'gels'. While Gary Oldman is invisible inside the role of George Smiley (made famous by Alec Guinness ) - not for a moment do you think you are watching the same man who played Dracula, Sid Vicious or Drexl Spivey - some of the British 'made for TV' actors are harder to take seriously. Kathy Burke as love-starved spy madame, Connie Sachs is particularly incongruous, but Sherlock Holmes, Caesar, King George the Sixth and Trigger fair little better. Benedict Cumberbatch, who was terrific as Sherlock Holmes in Mark Gattis and Steven Moffat's modern day updating, doesn't seem to have the stomach to play Peter Guillam, the man who heads the Scalphunters. He fails to exhibit the sort of steel one might expect from the man tasked with marshaling the troops amongst the meanest of all the MI6 divisions, the others of which are no shrinking violets, of course. Whereas the actors in the TV series were all clearly grown-ups, with the exception of Oldman and Hurt, the actors in this film come across like children playing dress up.

But boy do they know how to dress. Every haircut, every mini skirt, every corduroy trouser is recreated in painstaking period detail and (one assumes) accuracy. If only the kind of care and attention given to the popping of a Trebor mint in the mouth had been given to the script, which, all too often replaces Le Carre's colloquial aphorisms with crude and banal explanation. It is perhaps a minor point, but I don't think there is a single swear word in Le Carre's 1974 book, nor in the BBC's 1979 TV series, so why the need to add them in now?

What was subtext in the book and TV show is rendered as supertext in the film. Characters all too often explain what they are thinking and how they feel, as opposed to letting the audience figure it out for themselves. In the TV series, the threat of violence said so much more than a throat hacked open or a disgorged corpse lying in a bath tub of it's own blood, entrails spilling out over it's legs.

The ironical and ultra-bright Oxford and Cambridge graduates who run London Station, as well as the field operatives who are trusted to undertake missions all over the world, are shown to be just as crass and inept as the man next door, which was certainly not the case in the book. Not to say that the characters in Le Carre's novel are incorruptible automatons. Far from it. Many of them were much more deeply damaged than those depicted in the film, but all of them were at least logical and clever people with complex and contradictory motivations. Here, however, sensibilities are coarsened and subtleties ironed out, in order to make them more palatable for mainstream consumption.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that this is a European film with a European sensibility. Funded by the French, directed by a Swede, it never seems to take the idea of British Intelligence very seriously. There is no sense of context given to what are, on the surface at least, trivial matters. A more rigorous film might have started with some sort of newsreel footage, explaining that the Cold War was real, it was earnest and it was a very high stakes game. The ideological battle between the West on one side and the USSR on the other mattered because there was an absolute difference between the two. That is important. But one doesn't get the sense that the filmmakers really believe it, which is odd given the seriousness with which the director handled the fantastic subject of vampires in his previous film.

I went into this film with the best will in the world, anticipating something really great and wanting it to work for me too. Regretfully, I came out disappointed, even though the critical consensus tells me what I watched was a - Spy Games - Keyword description


Blogger Paul said...

I too went in to see this movie yesterday evening with high hopes - and left a little disappointed.

I knew nothing of the story before entering but was hoping for a high tension, suspense/thriller sort of thing. A 007 for grown ups perhaps. But that was probably a misinterpretation of the trailer on my behalf.

I'd love to now read the book and find out what I was missing.

1:19 PM


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