Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) - John Le Carre's Cold War classic on film

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SPOILER ALERT - SPOILER ALERT - SPOILER ALERT

The Simple version; There is a Russian spy in British Intelligence. Retired Intelligence Officer George Smiley is asked to come out of retirement to identify the traitor.
Above: The original Smiley, Alec Guinness
Below: The New, Gary Oldman

The Background; the early Seventies and the Cold War rumbles on. The Head of British Intelligence, (known as the Circus) Control and his deputy George Smiley are forced out after a disastrous operation behind the Iron Curtain. Intelligence Officer Jim Prideaux has been shot and captured in Hungary on a mission to reveal the identity of the mole. The name of the story comes from the nicknames assigned to key players by the outgoing Control; thus Smiley himself is 'Beggar-Man', New Intelligence chief Percy Alleline is 'Tinker', his deputy Bill Haydon 'Tailor'. Roy Bland and Toby Esterhase, two high-rising stars of the Secret Service are 'Soldier' and 'Poor-Man' respectively. These, then the possible suspects for the betrayal of Prideaux and the Service.
Above; The secure room at the heart of the Circus, Control (John Hurt) is losing his grip
Witchcraft; a high-level source of fantastic Soviet state secrets, 'Witchcraft's' identity and information are jealously guarded secrets. The story is set in the years of paranoia following the spy scandals of the post-war years; England is no longer considered fit for the 'top table' of Intelligence agencies and England wants her seat back. At what cost?, supposing Witchcraft is too good to be true?. If British Intelligence buys one more dud it is finished as a serious player – we will never be trusted again. Delight at Witchcraft's potential is widespread, especially among those climbing the ladder. Only two people – Control and Smiley – doubt Witchcraft, smelling a rat.
Laconic intervention; Overseeing British Intelligence is, inevitably a civil servant (The real power in England since the stapler and the hole punch were invented); Oliver Lacon. Lacon has got wind of the mole from disgraced Intelligence Officer Ricky Tarr, himself a suspected defector. Wisely, Lacon brings Smiley in to find the traitor.
Gary Oldman's Smiley is measured, studied and close to flawless
Smiley's friends; Terminally ill, Control has now died. Young star of the Circus, Peter Guillam and a retired Special Branch Officer, Mendel (first name 'Officer') are enlisted quietly by Smiley to assist him. In his travels, Smiley also visits Connie Sachs, a former 'Registry Queen', sacked from the Circus by Alleline for her insistence that a Soviet Cultural Attaché, Polyakov was a spy. A former Duty Signals Officer, Jerry Westerby was on duty at the Circus the night Prideaux was shot. He called Smiley's house and his wife Ann answered. Haydon then arrived at the Circus and claimed he'd seen the news at his (gentleman's) Club. Smiley is no fool – he knows his wife is unfaithful and this confirms her affair with Haydon.
Above; Ricky Tarr, as played by Tom Hardy
Karla; Ricky Tarr reveals to Smiley that he was in Istanbul to investigate a Soviet agent, Boris. To get to Boris, Ricky had an affair with his wife Irina, herself an agent. Tarr fell for her and she offered him the name of the Circus mole if Tarr could get her to safety in the West. The mole was controlled by the most shadowy figure of all; Karla, a high-ranking KGB officer and spymaster. (Smiley has actually met Karla; many years before, when he interrogated the captured KGB officer in India. Karla's nature was revealed by his insistence on returning to Russia in disgrace, knowing that he would almost certainly face execution. Karla, simply put, is a fanatic.) Tarr sends a signal to the Circus, but is ordered home at once. He then finds Boris has been murdered along with the Circus' Station Chief in Istanbul. Irina is captured by the KGB and realising he has been betrayed and framed, Tarr goes into hiding. Smiley sends Guillam to 'borrow' the Circus logbook for the night of Tarr's message, but the relevant pages have been removed.
Above; Benedict Cumberbatch is Guillam, seen here in the Circus Registry
The school teacher; Jim Prideaux was repatriated after a spy exchange and sacked. Taking a job at a minor prep school he tends his wound and bides his time. Smiley tracks him down and a bitter Prideaux reveals he was in Hungary to learn the name of the mole. During harsh interrogations by the Soviets, he saw a blonde prisoner, Irina being executed.

Chicken-feed for Caviar; Alleline ('Tinker'), Haydon, ('Tailor') Bland ('Soldier') and Esterhase ('Poor-Man') have all been meeting Polyakov, the Cultural Attaché at a safe house. The idea was to hand Polyakov low-grade material, known as 'Chicken-feed' to convince his Soviet masters he is a loyal and active spy. At the same time, he would hand over the 'Witchcraft' material. The reality? - the 'Witchcraft' material was Chicken-feed and at least one of the British suspects were handing over top-level British and American secrets at the meetings.

Smiley visits the tailor; Learning of the safe house from Esterhase, Smiley arranges for Tarr to present at the Circus' Paris Station and claim to know the mole's identity. This triggers a meeting at the safe house, the panicked mole running to inform Polyakov and request the KGB to eliminate Tarr. Smiley is waiting, of course and arrests Haydon.
 Dramatis Personae with the author John Le Carre

The top table; Haydon is held in the Circus facility at Sarratt and tells Smiley his affair with Ann was Karla's idea. He knew that Smiley wouldn't be able to 'see him straight', his judgement clouded by personal feelings. Prideaux had trusted Haydon, his friend with the nature of his mission in Hungary and knowing he was in danger of being uncovered, Haydon betrayed Prideaux. From Sarratt, Haydon is to be exchanged to the Soviets; but Prideaux shoots him from outside the compund with a hunting rifle. George Smiley returns home to reconcile his marriage with his new job; he is the new Control.
The Book; essential for any Espionage or Cold War buff.
Note to the reader; the above is a cut-to-the-bare-bones account of the 2011 film, some events have been twisted to fit and for clarity, but the gist is, I believe, faithful enough. The book and classic Television play were more complex and the TV version more faithful to the original. Almost every reviewer I've read prefers the TV mini-series, but I feel many have missed something; the film version isn't trying to be original, however much Gary Oldman's Smiley (deliberately) echoes the late Alec Guinness'. Rather, there's a genuine, credible attempt to set the story into a structured reality and identity that you might call '1970's drab Cold War'. I'll try to avoid the horribly over-used word 'palette' here, but the colours and tones are muted, Seventies orange brought in as a sinister and genuinely disconcerting reminder that the times I grew up in were anything but the safety and stability of life with Mum. By the bye, look out for a Le Carré cameo, during the flashback Christmas party scene.
Above; John le Carre in Hamburg, 1964
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a great film for people wanting cinema realism with their Espionage story. The plot isn't easy to get through, but it's far from the gordian knot of common perception. Even intelligent audiences seem to struggle and my inevitable conclusion is because films are just too easy to watch these days. In the early days of cinema, plots were generally; Hero meets girl, Hero gets knocked back, Hero wins girl – or something equally simplistic. Then, as competition from TV and radio grew, film-makers had to bring in gimmicks such as wide-screen and then, with the politically-savvy audiences of the late sixties and seventies, they turned to story as a draw. Compare the seventies politico-thrillers such as The Conversation or All the President's Men and the Bourne movies and you see the difference; modern films draw the viewer along with action sequences as the pull, as opposed to plot and dialogue. This film makes you think, you have to stay 'switched on' throughout or you just won't get it, just the flavour. I've read arguments that the flavour is enough, the essence is the same, but having a drink of Ribena doesn't mean you've eaten a blackcurrant. Maybe Ribena's better.

Above; Smiley with Peter Guillam

Smiley Vs Bond; Where Tinker, Tailor – indeed all John Le Carré's works scores is the realism. Both Le Carré and Ian Fleming worked in Intelligence – the latter for wartime Naval Intelligence, Le Carré for both the Security Service (often called MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), but whereas Fleming's creation was mainly fantasy and exaggeration based on an intelligence framework, Smiley's world is a dirty mirror of reality. Officers and Agents in the real World rarely carry guns or gadgets; if you are caught with either in a hostile country you must be a spy, up to no good. So too with Smiley's reality; on his side of the mirror agents don't drive Astons or drink Dom Perignon on luxury yachts because real ones don't. Perversely, the appeal is the opposite of Fleming's, the normally unattractive grey dowdyness of it all, the bleak outlook and haggard, awful people are compelling. Le Carré works hard to make them this way; they are either intelligent, unpleasant, loyal, treacherous, noble or vain, but they all have their motivation and their purpose. (If you want to take the Bond comparison further, see the forthcoming SPECTRE as both films were lensed by Hoyte Van Hoytema.)
Le Carré displays a phenomenal intellect and ability to paint his characters with the palette (aargh!) of memory, giving fictional characters the lives and attributes of real people. This is most evident in his books, but it transfers to the screen. My advice for people new to his works is to try the film before the books, but beware; the earlier Le Carré works are the best. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, (Pub. 1974) The Honourable Schoolboy (Pub. 1977) and Smiley's People (1979) form a trilogy, known as the 'Karla Trilogy', A Perfect Spy (1986) is a fabulous, semi-autobiographical work, loosely based on his own childhood and strained relationship with his father; a criminal associate of the Krays, The Russia House (1989) is a late Cold War thriller with unforgettable characters, while The Secret Pilgrim (1990) gives Smiley a swansong and us a selection of short espionage stories that I found utterly beguiling. If I leave out any classics, it's because I haven't read them all.
So, if I had to rate this film – and I do, I'd give it...
Yes, 4 Rose and Daggers out of 5!

Dramatis Personae;
Gary Oldman is George Smiley
John Hurt is Control
Colin Firth is Bill Haydon
Mark Strong is Jim Prideaux
Ciaran Hinds is Roy Bland
Benedict Cumberbatch is Guillam
David Dencik is Toby Esterhase
Toby Jones is Percy Alleline
Kathy Burke is Connie
Simon McBurney is Oliver Lacon
and 
Michael Sarne is Karla

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