Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Guest Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

A Film Review by Tennessee Jed

Do you remember those old movie posters proclaiming “Youʼve read the book, now see the movie”? The trouble is, more often than not, people who see films after reading books on which they are based exit the theater disappointed. There are plenty of reasons underlying the phenomenon. Movies must condense the story to a time frame acceptable for modern cinema, often glossing over important characters or plot developments. Just as often, readers already set in their mindʼs eye what the characters look, sound, and act like, leading to an automatic rejection of the cast in the film version. In worst case scenarios, screenwriters make wholesale changes to the story for any number of reasons.

But sometimes, a film based on a best selling book gets it just right. And, once in a very great while, a story comes along that is so nuanced and complex, the old adage actually gets turned around: “If you do plan to see the movie, you better read the book first!” Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is just such a film and novel. Letʼs review why that is the case.

** spoiler alert **

This film, released in September 2011, is based upon the best selling novel of the same name by former British spy David Cornwell under his pen name, John LeCarre. The novel is his fictionalized account of the greatest scandal in the history of the British Secret Intelligence Service (a.k.a. The Circus) which occurred in the late 1950ʼs when several individuals within the service were exposed as Soviet moles. They became collectively known as the “Cambridge Five.” The highest placed, Kim Philby, somehow managed to escape detection during the initial scandal, eventually defecting to the Soviet Union in 1964. Cornwell (a.k.a. LeCarre) had been employed by both MI-5 and MI-6 and says he was forced out after his identity had been revealed to the Soviets by Philby. It was at this juncture he started his career as a novelist, creating the ongoing character George Smiley, an intelligence official who has appeared in at least ten books. The antithesis of the service as portrayed by novelist Ian Fleming and his protagonist James Bond, Le-Carreʼs Smiley books are considered by many to be the best and most authentic espionage books ever written.

The title is taken from some of the words to an old British nursery rhyme, and used as code names for senior advisors to the head of S.I.S., Control (John Hurt). They include Bill Hayden, “Tailor” (Colin Firth), Roy Bland, “Soldier” (Cirian Hinds), Toby Esterhase, “Poorman” (David Dencik), Percy Alleline, “Tinker” (Toby Jones), and George Smiley “Beggarman” (Gary Oldman).

Plot - The events in the film are set in the 1970ʼs rather than the 50ʼs and 60ʼs. We first view Control sending an agent named Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary to speak with a Military General who has offered to share intelligence. The mission goes awry, Prideaux is shot in the back and captured. Control and his ally and chief lieutenant Smiley are forced out as a result of the political fallout, and Controlʼs chief rival, Alleline becomes the new head of S.I.S. Control, already old and in poor health soon dies. However, Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), civilian overseer of S.I.S. brings Smiley out of retirement. He wants Smiley to investigate old rumors that “Karla” the head of Soviet Intelligence (known as “Moscow Center”) has a highly placed mole in S.I.S. code named “Gerald.” Alleline rose to power as a result of what appears to be high quality intelligence from a soviet mole he is running in an operation code named “witchcraft.” He appoints his ally and former London station chief Bill Hayden as his chief deputy and right hand man. His hope is to use the “witchcraft” intelligence to regain the confidence of the American “cousins” and entice them to once again share their own intelligence.

Smiley enlists young intelligence officer Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) to assist with his investigation. Other key characters include Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) as the agent who originally uncovers the potential existence of “Gerald”, and Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke) chief soviet analyst. She was also sacked after the Hungarian operation for accusing the Soviet cultural attache of being an agent, without being able to prove it. What follows is very realistic, if conventional, investigative work. Eventually, Smiley uncovers enough evidence to strongly suspect the identity of “Gerald” and lays a trap for him. There will be no revelation here as to which senior official turns out to be “Gerald” (the fictional version of Kim Philby.)

What Works Really, Really Well - the film is incredibly well photographed, and is stunning in 1080p. Most interior shots are all polished wood and somewhat dimly lit. Direction is superb in terms of cinematography and set up of scenes. While I donʼt know exactly how the master was filmed, it does have an extremely nice but cool feel to it. Acting is uniformly excellent throughout, a tribute to the casting director. Special mention must be given to Gary Oldman in the lead role. He follows Sir Alec Guinness in playing Smiley. Guinness did so in a BBC mini-series adaptions of two of the three novels that make up the so-called “Karla Trilogy” pitting Smiley against Karla. In my view, Oldman need not take a back seat. He was nominated for the oscar for leading actor, losing to Jean Dujardin.

Everything about this film seems real, and that stems from the story itself as well as the screenplay adaption (which was also nominated for an oscar). The characters are credible and believable, perhaps not surprising considering LeCarreʼs “insider” status.

What Doesnʼt Work - The novel is a lengthy, complex tale. Even the author was concerned that it could not be condensed down to feature film length. The original adaption with Guinness was, after all, split into a seven episode mini-series. That is a valid criticism, although the film makers do a reasonable job of retaining the essence of the novel. Other critics complained that given the necessary condensation (or in spite of it), viewers unfamiliar with LeCarreʼs book would be unable to follow the story. In this criticism, I wholeheartedly concur. There are so many characters with unfamiliar names to keep track of, and the dialogue is loaded with “insider” terminology.

Other LeCarre fans insisted trying to pair down the story to feature film length sacrifices the very depth of character development for which the books are justifiably famous. I also believe the very realism that is overall a strength, makes for a very slow developing film. Thereʼs not much in the way of physical action here, and certainly no colorful villains like “Odd Job” or even “Red Grant”.

The Bottom Line - I must be honest and say I have not read all the John LeCarre Smiley books as I have with Ian Flemingʼs Bond stories. They can be a bit of a slog, and are probably not for everyone. But I do understand the allure of LeCarre and Smiley as the “connoisseursʼ” espionage stories. As such, the film will work immensely better if you are familiar with Smiley and his longer term development. I think it would be a shame to miss this film, but if you do plan to see it, this is one time I recommend you “read the book” before screening it. At the very least, check out a good plot synopsis or summary of which several are available on-line. While it will give away the ending, it may just allow you to appreciate better how good, in many respects, this film really is.

41 comments:

Tennessee Jed said...

I will have to be out from around 9:00 a.m. to around 2:30-3:00 p.m. EDT, but will answer all posts when I return.

Doc Whoa said...

Jed, Excellent review. I enjoyed this thoroughly, though I thought I would have enjoyed it a little more if I'd read the book first. Glad to see you had a similar thought!

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Thanks for an excellent review! I've been wanting to see this, but like so many other recent films haven't had the chance. I think the casting looks great and the story sound fantastic. I can imagine that condensing it into a two film would be difficult though.

Doc Whoa said...

I forgot to mention, I love spy stories and I would love to see more realistic spy stories. That's why I liked this. I like James Bond, but Bond is pure fantasy. These films much more real to me.

Ed said...

I'm a big fan of each of these actors! Talk about great casting -- Oldman, Hardy, Cumberpatch, Firth! And these were perfect roles for them too. I have not read the book, but I truly appreciate the film. I was particularly happy that it had solid twists and turns and didn't treat me like an idiot.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed and Doc, It sounds like you both enjoyed this! I absolutely need to check this out asap.

ScyFyterry said...

Jed, I haven't seen this yet, but I want to. I had no idea LeCarre was really a spy? Wow. Have they done other movies from his work?

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I've been trying to think of other spy films and I really can't come up with many. You have James Bond, obviously, then you have the Jason Bourne series. You have Ronin (sort of), you have No Way Out, you have Where Eagles Dare. But beyond that, I'm having a hard time really thinking of any.

Tennessee Jed said...

Doc - thanks! I enjoyed it as well. I honestly believe they did the very best possible job of condensing the storyline down to feature film length.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - thanks! the biggest problem I have with this movie (and I think my opinion is shared with many critics) is that is you are not already aboard the George Smiley train, it is hard for a first time LeCarre viewer to follow what is going on. That is a very valid criticism.

Tennessee Jed said...

Doc - I agree. Which is why I really enjoyed The Hunt for Red October. I would have loved them to do The Cardinal of the Kremlin. Don't know who to use off the top of my head. Certainly not the overly affected Ben Affleck.

Tennessee Jed said...

Ed, Doc, and Andrew - the acting is beyond first rate, it is about as good as it gets. I will admit that because of the emphasis on grunt work and dialogue over action, it does get a little slow. If you don't know the story, you absolutely must pay strict attention. They also do a couple things with flashbacks. Now it was o.k. becuase the situation pretty much demanded it, but again, it can be trying for the first time viewer who though he was in for a Bondian popcorn summer matinee. This si the Chateneuf-du-Pap of spy stories :)

Tennessee Jed said...

Terry - the following have been made into feature films: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold with Richard Burton, Deadly Affair, Looking Glass War, Little Drummer Girl, The Tailor of Panama with Pierce Brosnan, and the Constant Gardner. In the 70's BBC did mini-series of Tinker, Tailor, and Smiley's People which are the two legs of the so-called "Karla" trilolgy pitting Smiley against Karla. I have Seen "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" the tailor of Panama, and the BBC Sir Alec Guiness version of Tinker Tailor. I would not be surprised to see the "Karla" Trilogy completed with this cast given it's critical and financial success.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - a few that come to mind (spy films) - Confessions of a Dangerous Mind about Chuck Barriss?, True Lies, The Good Shepard, Spy Game, and The Matador. Also, James Coburn did the "Flint" films, kind of a take off on Bond. One of very favorite involves public sector spying called industrial espionage. The best of these is Gene Hackman in "The Conversation."

Tennessee Jed said...

My apologies to all for a typo in the article above. I am mentioning it because it can cause reader confusion. I had a typo stating "Wilcox had worked in both MI-5 and MI-6." I meant to say Cornwell (a.k.a. LeCarre) worked in both Mi5 and MI6 until he was forced out when Philby gave up his name to the Soviets. That is what started his career as a novelist.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, True. There are indeed more spy films that I remembered. And I guess if we go to television, then you have even more.

ScyFyterry said...

Jed, Ah ha! I knew I'd seen a couple. I've seen "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold," "The Tailor of Panama" and "The Constant Gardner."

I'd like to see them make more following this one.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, The typo has been corrected.

Terry, I've seen those as well. I liked "Spy" the best of those.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - on t.v., I used to enjoy a show called "I Spy" starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. Also, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum were in one called "The Man From Uncle."

Tennessee Jed said...

Terry - I was not a great fan of the film version of Spy Who Came In From the Cold" but really liked The Tailor of Panama. They are just releasing the Alec Guiness version of Tinker Tailor. I only saw it when it was originally broadcast, so I'm looking forward to seeing it again.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - thanks for the correction!!! Don't know how I missed it.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, It happens... no problem! :)

I am familiar with both shows, though I rarely watched them.

You know what was a another good spy film? Breach with Chris Cooper. That was a fascinating one.

ellenB said...

Oldman is one of my favorites. I haven't seen this, but it's on my list.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - yes, Breach is a very good one..

Tennessee Jed said...

Ellen - good! I do think you should see it. You must pay very careful attention and drink a cup of coffee prior to starting. I'll admit LeCarre is not for everyone, but if you can persevere, the result is quite rewarding.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, If I may do a somewhat-related threadjack for a moment, I saw a fascinating film last night staring Christopher Lambert (Highlander) called Day of Wrath. It was complex and at times difficult to follow, but it was really quite a good film -- it was about the Spanish Inquisition.

Tennessee Jed said...

bring out . . . . the comfy chair

T-Rav said...

I was intending to see this, but wouldn't you know, it apparently never appeared in our local theater. Figures.

Cumberbatch plays Sherlock Holmes in the PBS series, right? Between him, Oldman, Hardy, Firth, and the others whom I'm unfamiliar with, it sounds like there's some great acting here.

Tennessee Jed said...

T-Rav. He does . . . . and there is

LawHawkRFD said...

Tennessee: I've never seen the movie version of TTSS, and though I enjoyed the mini-series, it was exhausting. I really was put to sleep by The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. If that was the Cold War, the West should have won simply by boring or depressing the Soviets to death. Though the Cold War wasn't all Bond-type excitement, at least in TTSS the participants weren't zombies. Not so for Spy.

Tennessee Jed said...

Hawk - that's a good word for the mini-series . . . exhausting. One of the reasons I enjoyed the new film version is it did pair it down. They risked making some of the things that happened less understandable to the LeCarre "newbie." Since you pretty much know what goes on already, I believe you can appreciate the film on the same level as I did. That is, I still maintain this is the very best feature film adaption of TTSS that could be made and is worth your time.

T-Rav said...

Jed, one complaint I did hear about the film was that they repeated the basic conflict more than they needed to, as in "X thinks there's a spy in Control." And then they go on to say something like that five more times. Since I haven't seen it, I don't know. But that's what I've heard.

Tennessee Jed said...

Rav - I didn't really notice or get bummed by it. In the novel, Ricky Tarr is the guy who discovers the possible existence of the mole in Hong Kong and advises Control. That is actually the real reason he sends Prideaux to Hungary. To set a trap. But, "Gerald" beats him to the punch and sets up the blown operation, the capture of Prideaux, and forced resignations of Control and Smiley.

Backthrow said...

I haven't watched the new TTSS yet, but I want to watch the old miniseries first, which aired when I was too young to understand or appreciate it.

Spy films... I love most of them, both the serious and the fanciful. Apart from the Bond knock-offs and spoofs, and the films already mentioned, here are some good, serious ones that are worth checking out--

The 'Harry Palmer' trilogy, starring Michael Caine, which helped to make him a star (along with ZULU and ALFIE):

THE IPCRESS FILE (1965)
FUNERAL IN BERLIN (1966)
BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN (1967, though played mainly straight, this is the silliest of the three, thanks to director Ken Russell, and gets the U.S.-Soviet Cold War dynamics completely wrong, but is pretty entertaining... it plays like a Mad Magazine parody of the Left's view of "good" Soviets and "bad" U.S. anti-communists). Caine made a couple of belated Palmer follow-up films in the 1990s, but they aren't very good.

DANGER ROUTE (1967), a dandy little one-off spy flick starring Richard Johnson (the head of the ghost reasearch team in the original version of THE HAUNTING) as agent 'Jonas Wilde'. He's sort of midway between a Connery Bond (but no gadgets) and Richard Burton in THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD. Quentin Tarantino is a big fan of this film, and it's on Netflix Streaming if you're a subscriber.

THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM (1966) George Segal hunts down a secret Nazi cabal in 1960s Germany.

THE DOUBLE MAN (1967) CIA agent Yul Brynner gets caught in a plot where Soviet agents try to have him replaced by a doppelganger. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, just prior to his helming PLANET OF THE APES.

MAN ON A STRING (1960) Ernest Borgnine, in one of his better ferformances, is a Russian movie producer who becomes a counterspy for the U.S.

THE COUNTERFEIT TRAITOR (1962) William Holden is an expatriot American oil-trader who sets up business in Sweden, and is pressed into service as an agent, using his business ties to spy on the Germans' industrial sector during WWII. Excellent flick, where Holden has to feign hobnobbing with Nazi sympathizers and muckity-mucks, and deals with being a pariah amongst his old friends and family, who are unaware that he's playing a ruse.

THE INTERNECINE PROJECT (1974) James Coburn is an ex-agent about to receive a plum job as a presidential advisor, but has to dispose of some unsavory former associates who have info that would look bad on his resume.

THE MACKINTOSH MAN (1973) Paul Newman as an agent assigned by the British to infiltrate a gang of criminals who are run by Parliament member James Mason, who is actually a master spy himself. Written by Walter Hill, directed by John Huston.

THE KILLER ELITE (1975) Liquidator (Robert Duvall) vs Liquidator (James Caan), directed by Sam Peckinpah.

EYE OF THE NEEDLE (1981) Donald Sutherland as a Nazi agent set on stopping the D-Day invasion, who strikes up a romance with Kate Nelligan on a remote U.K. island outpost as part of his cover.

DECISION BEFORE DAWN (1951) Oskar Werner is a German POW who is reluctantly recruited to spy in his homeland by the Allies, helped by U.S. operative Richard Baseheart, in the waning days of WWII.

SPARTAN (2003) David Mamet spy thriller starring William H. Macy and Val Kilmer. I haven't watched it in a few years, and it was probably meant as a veiled (?) criticism of Bush-era War on Terror policies, but I liked it a lot, though Mamet's style of dialogue can be off-putting for some (not me, but I'm a fan of most of Mamet's work).

I love most of the old 1960s TV spy series-- DANGER MAN/SECRET AGENT, THE PRISONER, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., I SPY, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, et al

--but my favorites will always be THE AVENGERS and THE WILD WILD WEST. As silly and over-the-top as they could often be, for pure fun, you just can't beat the exploits of John Steed & Emma Peel and Jim & Artie.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, When you said "Harry Palmer" I misread that and I thought, "Harry Potter's not a spy?!" LOL!

I just saw Killer Elite for the first time about two weeks ago. I thoroughly enjoyed it, though it was an odd movie.

As for the rest, I'm ashamed to admit I haven't seen most of these! I have some catching up to do on the spy issue.

Tennessee Jed said...

Backthrow - you listed some good ones. I've seen the Harry Palmer flicks, plus Ipcress File, Counterfeit Traitor, Mackintosh Man. All were prety good. I've always enjoyed Eye of the Needle and The Eagle Has Landed although one could argue they are a separate sub-genre (spy film during a hot war.)

I want to see the BBC miniseries of TTSP as well, but don't want to have to shell out $50 bucks for the blu-ray. Oh well, life is hard sometimes :)

Backthrow said...

Ah, but Andrew, you've actually stumbled upon the hidden truth that Harry Potter is *indeed* a spy... in point of fact, an agent for H.O.G.W.A.R.T.S.

Headquarters
Of
Global
Wetwork
And
Recon
Tactics
Specialists

--that scar on his forehead was NO ACCIDENT! It was for clandestine I.D. purposes! LOL

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, That is truly impressive! Did you just make that up?

Tennessee Jed said...

Backthrow - who knew? (l.o.l.)

Thanks for your comments folks!

Backthrow said...

Andrew,

Yes, I just made that up. I've watched too many spy movies, so acronyms are like second nature to me, lol.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, That's excellent work! :)

Post a Comment