Brit praises Thomas Alfredson’s new adaptation of the Le Carre classic…
A Saturday night visit to the ring-road multiplex is not, in the normal course of things, an activity of particular cultural sophistication. Grown-ups in JD sportsgear (i.e.oversized romper suits) toddle open-mouthed from the shouty, flashy blast of the foyer into the shouty, flashy blast of whatever lowest common denominator superhero brain-mush Hollywood has lately focus-grouped into being. The gargantuan cardboard tubs of fizzy pop and popcorn seem designed to dwarf the punters who clutch them into feeling eight years old again. And of course at eight years old you’ll uncomplainingly watch any sort of rubbish, won’t you?
Imagine my surprise then, when upon entering theatre 13 of the local Vue mega-cinema this weekend I found not only an old-fashioned trolley dolly, but one whose wares included… wait for it…. booze! I looked, and looked again. A series of passing men halted in comedy double-takes and peered with suspicion then growing wonder. Could it really be true? Yes, said the trolley person, Vue had gained a license that week to serve alcohol during films. Okay, the ‘bar’ consisted of a few bottles of Stella, WKD and some Aussie plonk, but, as with the talking dog, it’s not so much the content as the fact that they can do it at all that impresses.
So it’s fair to say that as I settled back in my seat and sipped my plonk I was predisposed to look kindly on the new adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Being a Le Carre fan (a Smiley fan really, not so much the more recent novels) I had had my doubts, partly because I worried that the constraints of a two-hour movie would squeeze the subtleties out of the thing, and partly because I already knew whodunit (in case you don’t, I won’t spoil it in this review). But in fact it is a quite brilliantly executed film.
Director Thomas Alfredson – a Swede – has an uncanny understanding of the novel’s dour Englishness. The evocation of 1970s London is wholly immersive: this is not so much the Cold War as the Cold Dank Drizzly War. Everything is brown, paisley, mildewed. “Do NOT Disconnect” is written in marker pen on the wallpaper next to a primitive computer. It’s all in the details. When the government man scrapes marge onto a triangle of Mother’s Pride toast and then crunches it, the very sound seems somehow to evoke a declining nation at its saddest, drabbest point.
The casting is impeccable, particularly Gary Oldman as George Smiley. Tempting to suggest he channels Alec Guinness (star of the acclaimed 1979 TV adaptation) but in truth Le Carre’s character is so fully-formed and vivid on the page that it’s truer to say that both men just play Smiley well. The trick is to underplay yet dominate. Oldman is so still throughout that when he raises his voice just a notch in anger, in one of the very final scenes, the effect is shocking. He also suits the glasses: black frames for the present, tortoiseshell for flashbacks – a clever device by Alfredson, who guides the viewer deftly through plot’s complexities.
On first viewing I thought the denouement – the exposure of the Soviet mole at the top of the British secret service – was a little hurried and anticlimactic. But on reflection I can see why Alfredson cut the film this way. In the novel (and indeed the TV version) you get to know each of the suspects – Alleline, Haydon, Esterhase , Bland – and as such there is a lot more riding on the final revelation. In a two-hour film there simply isn’t room to develop each of these characters so Alfredson wisely concentrates on making it Smiley’s story. Which isn’t to say he leaves too much out. Indeed, his treatment of the homosexual subplot, which results in the film’s final assassination, is much more successful than was the case in the longer TV adaptation, and is accomplished in minimal time via a few meaningful glances at a party – very skilled direction indeed.
A sophisticated film then, which attributes to the viewer a modicum of intelligence. Watch it at your local Vue with a glass of vin rouge and suddenly a trip to the multiplex seems like a reasonable leisure activity for an adult. You could almost be in France, were it not for the spotless lavs.