Sunday, April 01, 2012

Spy vs. Spy

I’d delayed watching last year’s remake of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” because I’ve admired the novel (which had commas in its title) since its 1974 publication, and I’m a huge fan of 1979’s nearly six-hour mini-series with Alec Guinness brilliantly interpreting John le Carré’s most memorable creation, George Smiley. I own the DVD, and have watched it at least three times over the years. It’s great television.
When I heard “Tinker, Tailor” would be remade as a feature film with Gary Oldman as Smiley, my immediate question—undoubtedly one considered by le Carré and Guinness admirers everywhere—was the obvious: how do you pack so much complicated intrigue and so many complex characters into a two-hour movie (actually a two-hour twenty-seven minute movie)?
The sad truth, after watching the remake, is that you don’t, no matter how noble the effort.
First, some small reservations:
The film, much of which is set in London and its environs, doesn’t appear to have been shot in England. True, there are shots of London buildings, and maybe one or two exterior scenes (like Smiley’s home in Chelsea), but most locations and some of the sets—like the office of a minister—seem more European than British. Since many of the names in the credits appear Eastern European, and a major incident from the book has been transferred from Czechoslovakia to Hungary, my guess is much of the production took place there, no doubt for budget reasons. The result: the movie lacks a feel for London in the early 70s, when the story takes place.**
In the mini-series, The Circus—le Carré’s name for the headquarters of MI6—was a cramped space with narrow, dark hallways and sudden corners, a perfect place for spies to plot and keep secrets from each other. In the movie, it’s a huge, wide-open space more appropriate for an insurance company of its era, which perhaps explains why Control’s office looks like a decompression chamber, and the room where the heads of The Circus gather resembles an acoustically remodeled boxcar. There are no other places for these guys to get privacy.
In the novel and the mini-series, Smiley meets a former agent named Jerry Westerby to pick Westerby’s brain as Smiley seeks to discover the traitor in The Circus. The wonderful Joss Ackland plays Westerby, stealing his scene with Guinness, no small achievement given Guinness’ talents.
But in the film, the name Jerry Westerby has been given inexplicably to another character from both novel and mini-series: Sam Collins, the agent who was on duty the night news arrived that a field agent had been killed (allegedly) in Czechoslovakia. I know I’m carping here—and only dedicated le Carré fans would care--but le Carré’s sequel to “Tinker, Tailor” is “The Honourable Schoolboy.” Jerry Westerby is the eponymous hero of that book—and Sam Collins plays a major part, as well. Why rename Collins as Westerby for the movie? Senseless.
But here’s the movie’s major problem: unlike the mini-series, in which each of the potential traitors is clearly delineated, the movie fails to establish who these men are. They remain ciphers. When Smiley captures the mole, it means nothing. Any one of the suspects could have been proved treacherous, and the reaction—at least for me—would be: okay, but so what? There is no emotional release.
Which doesn’t mean there are not moments and performances to admire in the remake: Oldman is excellent, and Bernard Cumberbatch, as Smiley acolyte Peter Guillam, gets several affecting scenes, as does Mark Strong as the betrayed agent, Jim Prideaux.
But what a waste of such gifted actors as Colin Firth, Toby Jones, and Ciarán Hinds, who are left victims to cramming so much exposition in such limited time that all they can do is hint at whom their characters are. I’m not sure Hinds, a versatile actor with real presence in any movie he appears, has more than ten lines.
As I watched the remake, I kept wondering what viewers unfamiliar with either novel or mini-series would make out of such a truly Byzantine plot? Not much, I think.
As I said, the film’s a noble attempt. My advice, however: read the novel, watch the mini-series.
**My good friend Ken Salikof sent along the following information regarding the locations used in the new "Tinker Tailor." It appears they shot more in England than I thought, but to little avail, at least to my eyes:
Principal photography took place between 7 October and 22 December 2010.[11] Studio scenes were shot at a former army barracks in Mill Hill, north London.[5] Blythe House in Kensington Olympia, West London, was used as the exterior for "The Circus."[12] The interior hall of Budapest's Párizsi Udvar served as the location for the café scene, in which Jim Prideaux is shot.[13] Empress Coach Works in Haggerston was used as the location for the Merlin safe house. Other scenes were filmed on Hampstead Heath and in Hampstead Ponds, where Smiley is shown swimming, and in the physics department of Imperial College London. The exterior shots of the Islay Hotel, a run-down hotel described in the film as being near Liverpool Street station, which Smiley uses as a base, were shot in Wilkin Street, London NW5.[citation needed]
The events which take place in Czechoslovakia in the novel were moved to Hungary, because of the country's 20% rebate for film productions. The teams filmed in Budapest for five days. Right before Christmas the team also filmed in Istanbul for nine days.[5]


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