Monday, January 09, 2012

Out in the Cold

After John le Carré wrote his last novel about spymaster George Smiley, he lamented that Alec Guinness had stolen the character from him. In what is, perhaps, a bid to reclaim the character, the author acts as a producer on the new version of his seminal spy novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011, directed by Tomas Alfredson), in which Gary Oldman takes on the role. Smiley, in this story at least, is not an easy role to play. He's essentially a listener and for most of the movie, he's entirely passive. He has barely enough dialogue to register as a character. He's the audience, listening to the secrets of gray, tired men who have been out in the cold too long. Intelligence work is not James Bond, le Carré tells us. It's wearying, tedious, soul-crushing work. There's violence in this movie, but it's not thrilling. It's merely another unpleasant chore between poring over files and listening to taped conversations and drinking and smoking too much.

The story here finds British Intelligence infested by a highly placed mole. Near the top, the director of The Circus thinks, but before he can root him out, he is unceremoniously ousted. And shortly after that, he is dead, but not before planting the seeds of an investigation. Smiley's ouster along with Control exonerates Smiley, and when the Minister needs someone to clean house, he dumps everything upon him. The central mystery is defined by two others. First: what really happened during the mission gone spectacularly wrong when the agent sent to retrieve an allegedly defecting Russian general is killed in Hungary. The other revolves around who betrayed an agent in Istanbul when that agent found an asset (an attractive woman, as it turns out) with knowledge of a leak near the top? Smiley is given a young agent named Peter Guillam to do his legwork inside The Circus, while he himself interviews the ousted principles about what really happened. The trail leads to an operation called "Witchcraft," which has propelled its controller, Percy Alleline to the head of The Circus, but which Smiley suspects of being the work of his opposite number in Soviet intelligence, the sinister Karla. Witchcraft, it turns out, is the tool Smiley uses to force the mole into the open...

This is an unusually quiet movie. Great whacks of it are silent or nearly so, in which glances are more important than words. Smiley might be a poker player reading tells from behind a stone face. This is a lot like a Sherlock Holmes story, in which people bring the detective the facts and he deduces the solution from his armchair. There's even a version of Moriarty. The difference is that Holmes has a distinct personality, while Smiley is a cypher. Oldman plays him so guardedly that he seems completely inert until near the end of the movie, when he initiates the endgame. The other characters, on the other hand, are fascinating. The four men who comprise the suspects is each delineated by the cream of British thespians: Toby Jones is the over-ambitious Alleline, Colin Firth is the amiable Bill Haydon, Ciarán Hinds is the suspicious Roy Hinds, while David Dencik plays paranoid spear carrier Toby Esterhase. Each of them has defining ticks provided by the actors and they're more fun to watch than Smiley. Also fun to watch is Benedict Cumberbatch as Guillam (his presence underlines the Holmes connection, while his character seems like a deliberate nod to the homoerotic slash fiction based on his TV series). Tom Hardy and Mark Strong are good, too, as the blown agents at the center of the movie's dual mysteries. Hardy gets the more sympathetic role, while Strong's character wallows in defeat.

That last bit is important. This is a dreary movie. I have no doubt that Cold Warriors lived in a world much like this one, but it makes for a bit of distance between the audience and the story. Director Tomas Alfredson emphasizes this with a dismal visual design that drains the color out of the world. This is not a movie about right action or moral imperatives, rather, it's an examination of a peculiar political sickness of the last century. Alfredson has chopped the movie into a fractured chronology, which makes for some cinematic interest that the visual design does its best to stifle, but it sometimes confuses. I could follow most of what was on the screen, but had I not read the book, I might have foundered in the various narrative strands.

One thing about this movie brought a wry smile to my face. One of the production companies behind this film is "Karla Productions," which makes me wonder if this will be followed by two more movies based on The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People, respectively. I'd be down with that, I guess. I like both of those books better than Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which on the page is just as deliberately dismal as either movie version of the book.

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