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TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY – From Page to Screen

Gary Oldman as George Smiley - '...a buddha-like inscrutability'

In John Le Carré’s classic cold war novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and its faithful 1979 BBC adaptation, George Smiley has a classic ‘tell’. In moments of reflection, the man charged with hunting for the Soviet agent buried deep inside the British secret intelligence service, cleans his glasses with “the fat end of his tie”, a character tic inferring that somehow within the multiple layers of his intellect, Smiley has access to a deeper tier of perception than those around him. Le Carré writes and Sir Alec Guinness, the first and until now the definitive Smiley, played these moments perfectly. George Smiley is the elder MI6 functionary, discarded and redundant, whose depth of experience and weary disaffection betrays little, if any, of the workings beneath.

“From the outset of this meeting Smiley had assumed for the main a Buddha-like inscrutability…”

Some way through watching the relentlessly bleak Tomas Alfredson directed cinema adaptation, I realised that Gary Oldman’s George Smiley had spent almost the entirety of his screen time tightly waist-coated. It is as if Smiley is physically and metaphorically buttoned, denied even this passing external expression of inner goings-on. It is indicative of a performance which, for at least the first two-thirds of the film, is a study in stillness and understatement. Oldman’s Smiley is a flintier and more intense re-interpretation of the character we thought we knew.
Le Carré’s narrative perspective in the novel – omniscient and third person – is fundamental to exploring the conflict between private thought and public articulation. That which we, the readers, know and other characters do not, gives us deeper insight.

“Still disturbed by this intrusion on his memory, Smiley stood up in rather a flurry and went to the window, his ideal lookout when he was distracted.”

The novel gives space and time to eke out these nuances of character which, in a two-hour multiplex window are difficult – unless you resort to the clunk of exposition or invasive voice over, which thankfully the film does rarely, and usually to cover a swathe of narrative backstory in a few short scenes. Consequently, we come to understand Smiley as much from those around him as the character himself. One of the film’s great plusses is that the stellar supporting cast is given room to play.

For an author whose carefully depicted settings play such a key role in the supporting the narrative, the novel’s influence over the way the film feels and looks is evident. Time and place – London in the 1970s – the fag-end of the British Empire, with MI6’s status and energy drained by age and betrayal, are brilliantly invoked. That sense of tired functionality is embodied in the Circus – the headquarters of the intelligence service – with its soundproofed office pods and washed-out municipal paint job. This is the analogue world. It has an almost Orwellian oppressiveness and a washed out grimness that carries into the exterior scenes. In an early scene, a red double-decker crosses the shot. It is in stark contrast to every other shade on screen before and after. A scene in which Smiley is called to the home of Under Secretary Lacon – another great supporting performance from Simon McBurney – is a study in beige, from the textured wallpaper to Lacon’s polo neck jumper.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a great British novel whose potencies have been faithfully brought to the screen. It is a book which demands engagement; it is accessible, but its narrative  – or at least the multiple layers of narrative – are not easily dropped into mainstream cinema. The film’s crucial changes are those which see key events re-framed or cut altogether whilst maintaining the novel’s measured pace and solidly European aesthetic. The reveals are there, just not where you always expect them to be. There are thankfully few concessions. Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy remains an engagingly complex display of the best that British genre fiction can produce. This is a great story, brilliantly realised on screen, aimed at an audience willing to work a little.


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