A note, before we begin, on the vexed question of remakes. I’ve already been caught out once this year by taking a stand against them, and came close to missing out on a film that may be in my Top five for the year. I should know better. There’s no such thing as an absolute rule. Everything on this blog runs according to the Pirate Code. I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself.
So we come to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the chilly new version of the John Le Carré classic. The credits claim it to be based on the novel. That’s fine by me. There are plenty of duff film versions of good books, and a reinterpretation of the source material is welcome. There’s a great film in the novel of Logan’s Run, for example, that was never properly explored in the 70s adaptation.
However, Tomas Alfredson’s film of the book has a big weight to lift. All eyes are on the magisterial TV version, ready to chop this upstart down to size. I was all ready to be a member of this throng, until common sense prevailed. I have never seen the series, never read the book. For me, this is the ideal opportunity to see what the story’s like. It doesn’t have to measure up to anything else. I’d imagine this will be the same for a lot of the potential audience of the film – although I have to mention that I was the youngest person in the screening I saw by a significant margin. Not entirely sure what that signifies, apart from the fact that it was a cheap afternoon show.
Without any baggage then, I found Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to be a fine, twisty and amoral spy story. Keeping the Cold War setting made perfect sense, and the bleakness of 70s London and Budapest was explored with an artist’s eyes. There was a lot to tell in the two-hour running time, and Alfredson kept things compressed and compact. You have to pay attention, look for clues, listen out for fragments of audio that could have vital implications. It’s gripping, tense and brutal. You’re kept guessing about the mole right at the top of The Circus until the end. Everyone makes choices that will come back to haunt them. No-one gets out cleanly.
At the heart of the film, Gary Oldman is clinical and precise as a scalpel. He has the hardest decisions of all to make, and he does so without a flinch, without a second thought, regardless of who gets hurt in the backflash. I’m still unconvinced by the need to reference Alec Guinness quite so closely in his reading of the role, but it’s a minor quibble. The rest of the cast is a dream, and everyone plays it with a cold unblinking attention to detail. But these are not ciphers, chess pieces on a board. They are hurt, and they suffer, and you feel along with them.
I feel the urge to read the book now. I love the less-glamourous aspects of the spy game, and the film version of Tinker Tailor is a great example of a genre that covers classics like The Sandbaggers, and modern takes on the theme like the comic series Queen And Country. Le Carré has always says that his books are based on fact, and that the machinations of the intelligence service are mirrored in his stories. If that’s the case, you have to wonder just how close to chaos we live on a daily basis, and what kind of battles are being fought behind our backs and under our noses.