At the Movies

Michael Wood

Nothing in the new film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is quite as compelling as the posters for it. Well, there are compelling moments in the movie but they keep losing their allure by reuse; they just go on telling us there is a mystery while the posters picture it. The posters show Gary Oldman as George Smiley – or rather they show him as Alec Guinness made a little taller, thinner, cooler. The trick, it seems, is to acknowledge Guinness’s ownership of the icon – broad horn-rimmed glasses, dark suit, tie, longish hair swept back, glazed look of the master of intelligence – while suggesting this is an entirely different fellow. In one of the posters, we see Oldman’s eyes and glasses in close-up. On the left lens are the words: ‘The enemy is within.’ In a second version of the same picture we see the eyes and glasses again but this time we are more conscious of the black-gloved hand taking up a piece of the frame. Another poster shows Oldman looking preoccupied. The slogan is: ‘The secret is out.’ In yet another the picture is full-length, and Oldman stands tall against a background of snapshots of the other members of the cast. This image contains no verbal promise or hint, but there is something about the figure that suggests baffled authority, some sort of command gone wrong, a stance that is all stance.

In my memory Guinness twinkled a bit as Smiley, enjoyed the disguise, the intelligent man’s feigning of dimness, while Oldman goes for a quiet, slow dignity, the suggestion that feigning ignorance will land him with knowledge. Oldman’s performance is impeccable in one sense, slightly ponderous in another. His answers to questions are deliberately, fractionally too late, so that Oldman’s meticulous idea of Smiley gets entangled with Smiley’s own supposed meticulousness. This must work well for many viewers, but I found it mildly distracting. And then my memory of Guinness was wrong. He doesn’t twinkle, he doesn’t visibly enjoy the disguise. He’s as stolid and opaque as Oldman. The difference is that you can imagine him suffering; with Oldman you can only imagine him holding his suffering at arm’s length.

The problem with the new film, the TV series of 1979 and the le Carré novel of 1974, is that they have a situation but no plot: the secret is out, the enemy is within. The situation, essentially a version of the story of Kim Philby, is mesmerising. The Russians have a double agent high up in British intelligence, a top member of the service, so that everything that is supposed to be secret is known to the wrong people in advance, with disastrous effects on spy networks all over the world, and potentially ruinous consequences for any future intelligence collaboration between the UK and the US. You can’t really narrate or display this situation, you can only, endlessly, contemplate it. When the writer or director gets tired of the iterations, he tells us who the mole is.

Still, there are differences between the three versions. Le Carré makes up in atmosphere for what he hasn’t got in suspense, and creates a whole rackety secret world, a place where English public school boys gang up with con men and racketeers around the world to keep Britain safe. There are internecine conspiracies, a spy master losing his grip, murders in Czechoslovakia, and above all a Smiley who feels bad about his job – not because he’s lost it but because of the meanly ambiguous nature of the trade – so that his comeback feels especially sour. It’s a novel about the death of romance, the end of all fantasies of empire and adventure, although no one in the book can say just when the dream died.

The virtues of the TV series look a bit like defects at this distance: the cheap suits, tacky offices, ugly chairs, a whole shabby universe reeking of the small screen and a low budget. But then what else would we want? It may be that this all seems so authentic only in the light of the gloss and spaciousness of the new film; but even so, the seediness works, as does the leisurely pace of the series, and I found myself wondering whether television as a medium, a set of small square pictures in rooms full of other stuff, might just be more friendly to espionage.

There are fine performances in the new film – Mark Strong as an agent who is shot up in and whisked away from one of the mole-inspired disasters, Benedict Cumberbatch as Smiley’s diligent gofer, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Ciarán Hinds as high-ups in British intelligence, all candidates for the ultimately declared position of mole – and the director’s elegant hand is everywhere. Tomas Alfredson is best known for his bleak vampire movie Let the Right One In, and it’s interesting to see him work in a realm that might have been bleak but isn’t. His sense is that this film is all about surfaces and what can’t be seen on them, and there are neat allusions to Hitchcock and other directors. When Smiley puts together the last pieces of his puzzle about the mole, there is a shot of railway lines clicking together as the points are changed, a sort of solution to the mystery proposed by the criss-crossing rails in Strangers on a Train. But then the production seems overloaded with its own sense of luxury and space, as if espionage were not the grubby story it is supposed to be but a form of corporate enterprise, where the stakes are high, and someone gets to rule the world. Although the chief characters seem pretty much to be ruling their world already. These are all well-off people at a loose end, seeking power perhaps, but more likely some sort of diversion. Could one become a double agent out of boredom? Out of disappointment with one’s own country rather than enthusiasm for another – le Carré and the movie suggest that.

The snag from the point of view of suspense is not that the mole has to be one of the four senior members of the service shown in the film – the now dead Control, nicely overplayed by John Hurt in flashback, had five suspects since he included Smiley – but that we are given no reason to care which one it is. It is part of the machinery of any thriller that the villain could be anyone; of the machinery of a good thriller that the villain could have been anyone but is a quite specific someone. The film is too static for this concern, too preoccupied with its clothes and rooms and cars.

An emblem of the film’s mood is the series of shots of Smiley swimming in Hampstead Ponds. The point is not the swimming – he could take any sort of exercise, or none – but that he swims wearing his heavy glasses. Does he think he is going to crash into non-existent other bathers, won’t be able to see the bank, or a passing swan? No, surely the suggestion is that he can no more swim without his glasses than without his skin. His glasses are watchfulness, bureaucracy, solemnity, a kind of mask. But then all we know of him is that he keeps looking, and there is a similar problem with the filming of his quest for the mole among the office papers he has delivered to him every night. Filming a man reading is bit like making a movie of a writer at work: close-up, man or woman sits at a desk, staring at a sheet of paper, the shot is held for three hours.

What the film does well, then, is what the poster does: it sets out the imagery of a situation. There’s a recurring shot of files being transported up and down inside a building by means of a dumb waiter – the camera is exactly on the level of the files. There’s a freight lift used by the members of the service. It opens from the middle upwards and downwards like a mouth, and you feel you can’t know who or what will be waiting outside. Also that there will never be nothing or no one waiting. This may be what espionage is about: the expectation rather than the delivery. And this is perhaps one answer to the question that lodged itself in my mind as I saw the movie. Why now? What does this faded, folkloric tale of the 1970s have to say to us in 2011, why spend all this money and talent to bring it to life again? Is it nostalgia? Because we have no secrets now, because everyone is some sort of mole? Or do we have different secrets, and different modes of concealment, and no George Smiley to hide behind his glasses as he tells us what they are?