Thursday, 29 September 2011

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY: Positive review, comparison with BBC version, sequel talk & other Brit spy nonsense

 A conversation happening all over the UK right now
"no I don't think it's a movie for the boys, it will probably make THE SOCIAL NETWORK look like KICK-ASS"  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy adaptations may come along every generation or so just to remind us how getting old really isn't that bad.

 If you thought Micheal Caine's Harry Palmer movies (or even the Jason Bourne films) were the opposite of the James Bond series you've never come across John Le Carre's spy novels and tv adaptations. The central character, George Smiley, is a senior MI6 spymaster waging a permafrost low intensity spy conflict against his opposite number in the KGB, 'Karla', in the early 1970s.

This new movie, directed by the Swede responsible for similarly permafrost vampire romance LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, is the first since a hugely regarded BBC tv adaptation in 1979 a starring a post Star Wars Alec Guinness. The buzz about the 2011 film is already out of control thanks to a magnificent trailer, rave reviews at the Venice film festival and the subsequent decision to delay the release in the U.S. by over a month to place Gary Oldman's performance as Smiley (and a few others) within contention for the next Oscars.

The labyrinthine plot, told with copious flashbacks, concerns the realisation that the upper realms of the British intelligence service, referred to in Le Carre speak as The Circus (the CIA are The Cousins), have been infiltrated by a KGB agent who is now pulling the strings on every operation. Smiley is taken from enforced retirement to spy on the spies.

Just to place my perspective on the new film, I never read the book, I actually started novel but found the whole public school world impossible to relate to. Dune and Ringworld I can relate to, British 'public' school life is like another planet, even to your average Brit. I also actually disliked the BBC tv version of the novel at first watching (massively preferred the similar but much more gritty ITV series THE SANDBAGGERS from the same era). On second viewing I finally 'got' the BBC adaptation, which has a reputation as an incident unpacked glacial spy drama which is second to none.

First quarter of TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY 2011 is very very slow burn, which will, and is, causing some disappointment. The classic TTSS trailer  for the 2011 film, with the brilliant Danny Elfman music from WOLFMAN, is so far from the pace of the actual movie it seems like a fan made YouTube joke.

The movie does reward patience but I am not sure I would have followed it without previous exposure to the tv version. With the creepy production design and low simmering score TTSS 2011 starts like a documentary on the lives of insects (I kept thinking about PHASE IV), with the soon to be iconic the beehive meeting room enhancing this. The interiors used for the BBC version, a suggestion from the author, were actually filmed at the BBC. It looks authentic but for me the fixtures and fittings just look laughably cheap and never convincing

The 2011 Circus (comes from the vicinity of Cambridge Circus near Soho apparently) is an absolute triumph of production design and could be compared favourably to a classic Ken Adam Bond set. Dotted with listening posts/cocoons and a split level allowing views to lower levels of the 'hive', it is as live as any of the actors. I worked in Whitehall for six weeks this year and I can confirm that though it is often claustrophobic and dirty, like the rest of London it does have it's idiosyncratic design flourishes, odd mixtures of the gothic, art deco and the 21st century.

The exterior world of TTSS 2011 is almost Mervyn Peak/Gormenghast, with bizarre characters going through bizarre rituals in a slightly familiar fantasy land. And yet somehow is is very London 1973. It has been compared elsewhere to THE IPCRESS FILE... Actually it would be great to see Micheal Caines character from GET CARTER wander through a scene. It's THAT Britain of the 70s, the vulgar bewildered, inflated, never never land of soft core porn and power cuts shortly to be punctured by Punk and Thatcherism.

In the 2011 version, which obviously has the benefit of hindsight over what was in 1979 contemporary drama, we see a lot more of the political consequences of the plot. In the BBC version it is serious enough that the KGB have penetrated to the top of MI6. In 2011 it is made obvious that the real Russian intention is to use MI6 to get to the real information held by the CIA. This revelation is delivered in a crushing scene by Oldman's Smiley, who pricks the world power pretensions of his government superiors and forces them to see reality.

I could spend the entire review here talking about Gary Oldman. I think by some stealthy method he has become everyone's favourite actor. He's played Sid Vicious, Dracula and now George Smiley (and would have deserved at least a nomination for all three) You can't say he doesn't stretch himself.

Among his less appreciated achievements is, along with Christopher Nolan and Frank Miller, is taking someone like Commissioner Gordon and turning him into a character straight out of out of THE WIRE. It says something when Gordon is the character you most want go see again in the new Batman film, especially one that includes Catwoman (Anne Hathayway as Selena Kyle? Are you kidding? She looks more like FerretGirl).

This is heresy in the U.K. but I've never been convinced by national treasure Alec Guinnesses performance in the TV series of TTSS. I never found any of Guinness's generation of actors convincing (Larry Olivier especially, his Hollywood Heathcliffe is hilarious) though if you've always been put off by the standard World War II movie jingoism of BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI I would urge you to check it out. I've seen a million "anti war" movies and never seen one that gets as close to the real insanity of military thinking (keep your unit functioning by err... helping the enemy win the war). And Alec Guinness is very very good in it.

Mark Strong and Tom Hardy's short scenes of Karla's plots in Istanbul and Budapest could all be out-takes from INCEPTION, brilliantly shot, acted and very intense.

TTSS's already famous Xmas party scene, new for the 2011 movie and not in the novel or BBC version, manages to drip with vivid significance like the classic dinner scene in Frank Herbert's Dune novel, while floating timeless and haunted like a lost bar scene from THE SHINING.

The cold war is treated with less sentimentality than the BBC version. The KGB come out of this not as the honourable foes and potential allies of the Bond films but as really nasty pieces of work. Karla has been elevated to the level of scarred Bond villain, in the revelation that he has lost all of his fingernails. Well, not lost, the CIA ripped them out in the 1950s, half a century at least before admission of waterboarding in Iraq.

Peter Guillam, Smiley's right hand man,  gets a bigger role as befitting a crucial character in the plot. He is a weirdly undeveloped functionary in BBC tv series - he has a car, that's about it.
Benedict Cumberpatch's Peter Guillam does a great deal more than Smiley, and bearing in mind Cumberpatch is wowing audiences as BBC's SHERLOCK it easy to make an ironic Holmes/Watson comparison, if you take Watson to be just a functionary foil for Holmes (which he isn't). Guillam/Smiley is more like Bond/M, making you suddenly wonder what would be the most interesting a movie Bond remake told from a management perspective (I would vote THUNDERBALL).

Guillam is gay in the 2011 version. Some have complained about this change, but this 'baggage' does fit the tragic sacrifice being suffered by other members of Smiley's People and provides a good scene for a good actor. MI6 honeytrap seducer Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) is on the edge of renegade and ready to quit. His Russian defector Irina and rejected MI6 analyst Connie Sachs are even more tragic than the men.

In the storm of hype around TTSS, Helen Mirren has complained while promoting The Debt that there are not enough women in the cast. The other hugely significant female character in the plot is Smiley's wife Ann, whose serial adultery is the particular albatross hanging around the main characters neck. Interesting that Karla and Ann, the major demons in Smiley's life, are kept just off camera in TTSS, like the shark in JAWS, they are best when left to be conjured by the audiences imagination.

Dame Helen's protest that some of the main cast suspects should have been re-written to be female characters is ridiculous (think about it - the Circus is a perfect example of a seedy old boys club, that's its main weakness and that's what Karla exploits) - but I am a huge Helen Mirren fan and if you were going to cast Ann Smiley she would have been perfect. Perhaps this is what she is so annoyed about.

 Cast comparisons :

GEORGE SMILEY : Alec Guinness v Gary Oldman
I actually prefer Gary Oldman. National Treasure Alec Guiness is more of an avuncular uncle. AG can still crack a smile from time to time. Gary Oldman's Dracula was having more fun than his George Smiley. You never see Ann Smiley and it is a blessing, she could never live up to the billing as such a wretched piece of work. Is Oldman drawn to these characters? His breakthrough role was Sid Vicious.. Is Ann George Smiley's Nancy Spungeon? (Are you considering a Kurt Cobain biopic Gary? Don't do it to yourself)  In Guinness I don't see the pain and wear I see in Oldmans performance. Best Actor Oscar and or knighthood on its way.

CONNIE SACHS : Beryl Reid v Kathy Burke
Kathy Burke Does great cameo. Why they bothered with a lousy sequel to ELIZABETH when they could have gone with a prequel using Kathy Burke's terrifying and tragic Bloody Mary I'll never know. But, in the BBC version, beloved comedienne and fellow national treasure Beryl Reid gets it for me. Like in the case of Ian Bannen as Jim Prideaux, the age of the actors adds to their tragedy. You could cry buckets watching the BBC version of this character.
(FYI Kathy Burke is well on the way to UK national treasure status, though her potty mouth may delay royal recognition until Wills gets the promotion)
JIM PRIDEAUX : Ian Bannen v Mark Strong
I hated Ian Bannen first time I watched the BBC version, he's just such an unsympathetic creep. Having watched it twice now I can see what his Jim Prideaux has become in order to survive. His final act says it all - the man has almost no humanity left, in his single shocking karate death blow he has more in common with the Cybernauts of The Steed/Peel Avengers than an actual human being. Mark Strong is a great actor and his performance is another heartbreaker likely to get him an Oscar nomination, but I didn't believe that level of obvious emotional vulnerability was appropriate for the era. Tears? That generation? You must be kidding. They would surrender their humanity entirely before exposing it like that.

PETER GUILLAM : Michael Jayston v Benedict Cumberpatch
As mentioned in another review (sorry I can't remember who) there is some irony in Benedict Cumberpatch, BBCs most recent SHERLOCK, playing George Smiley's Dr Watson. He gets a much bigger part than his BBC counterpart and makes the most of it with a potential Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. A pivotal character poorly sketched in the BBC version, perhaps the main problem with it.

RICKY TARR : Hywell Bennett v Tom Hardy
Tom Hardy is very good but the under ultised Hwyel Bennett gets it by a whisker. Ricky Tarr, despite his doubts at the end and attempts to get out of the game, really is a seedy manipulative pimp character and Tom Hardy makes him too much of a heartthrob. More lines help.

BILL HAYDEN: Ian Richardson v Colin Firth
Once again BBC version wins. Colin Firth is excellent and a bit more believable than Ian Richardson, who is just such a hive of plutonian villainy you know in any sensible world he would be marched off to a firing squad and buried in salted earth as soon as he used that terrifying smile. Colin Firth is more believable as a seducer of Ann and as an employee of the KGB. Firth makes you believe there was actually something between him and Prideaux. Richardsons character obvously felt something at some point other than lust but you are left with the impression it may actually have been guilt. I think the Gestapo and the Spanish Inquisition would hesitate to employ Ian Richardsons version of this character but I have to admit I preferred watching him. Again more lines makes a big difference. I'm comparing 8 hours of tv to two hours of film.

KARLA : Patrick Stewart vs ?
Patrick Stewart (yes that Patrick Stewart) played Karla without dialog in both BBC tv productions, while Karla is unseen in the 2011 film. Interestingly the Karla of the BBC version, at the height of the reheated Cold War (BBC's nuclear war drama THREADS, which makes THE DAY AFTER look like THE MUPPET MOVIE, came a few years later) is not evil incarnate, merely Smiley's counterpart. Most of his BBC villainy takes place off screen. With the distance of time the 2011 version is given the full threat of an infamous KGB chief. Karla here is obviously a thoroughgoing bastard, and only the knowledge that Smiley *eventually* matches him for cruelty and cunning stops the modern version feeling a bit over the top. I would cast.. Patrick Stewart again (why not?).

Finally there are are a few examples of Le Carre's knack for intriguing detail in both versions;
In the 2011 movie Smiley is munching on Trebor Mints, as if they were the British antidote to the Cold War.

In the BBC version Smiley reveals that KGB mastermind Karla was arrested running a spy ring by the CIA in San Francisco in the 1950s. Did Karla dabble in beat poetry? Did he try recruiting and of Sonny Bargers motorcycle enthusiasts (is that why he was caught?)

At the end of the BBC version Ian Bannen's Jim Prideaux breaks into a secure facility to kill Hayden while the guards are watching a horror film. Smiley jokes bitterly that he doesn't know what the film was... but from the time and era I would guess it was 1970's early evening BBC screenings of Day of The Triffids or Village of The Damned, both very likely to scare, in the vernacular of the time, "7 colours of sh*t" out of habitually spooked MI6 spooks.

TTSS 2011 sets up so perfectly for a sequel it is almost the first half of a spy caper movie, with some talented organiser given a mission and slowly pulling a team together At the end not only do we have the motivated team raring for revenge, we have Smiley speaking out loud exactly how he will get Karla in the end, "he is a fanatic and fanatics are always hiding their secret doubts".

My favorite moment in the 2011 movie is Tom Hardy demanding that Irina be saved from the KGB so he can retire with her, because, he says, pointing to Smiley and co "I'm not going to end up like YOU". Not long after there is a montage of what will become Smiley's People, all twisted social mutants who are only super powers away from being the X-Men, (or perhaps the Brotherhood).

Would Patrick Stewart get to play Karla again? Would there be two extra movies? Oldman has said he wants to reunite cast and crew for a sequel but there are actually (at least) two.. the direct sequel to the TTSS novel, The Honourable Schoolboy, has Smiley's reconstituted Circus in a low level plot mostly centered around organised crime in Hong Kong. It only has a fleeting appearance from the real villians but apparently has a lot of action.

The real direct sequel is of course SMILEY'S PEOPLE, about which I'll say little, except that I thought the BBC version was superior to the tv TTSS. Oldman apparently wants the two sequel novels as one sequel film, that could be more of a movie blockbuster but I'd like to see as much of this take on Le Carre as possible.

But how will they emerse us more in 70s Britain than this? Will the Bay City Rollers feature? Or at least Slade? I'd love to see George Smiley adjusting his glasses to Little Jimmy Osmond,s "I'm just your long haired lover from Liverpool", while eating a Vesta curry washed down with Watneys Red Barrel.

I'd like to take this opportunity to confess to an extremely guilty pleasure; despite knowing it is mostly total garbage I have developed a bit of a wierd fascination for DIE ANOTHER DAY, the final completely over the top Pierce Brosnan Bond movie that makes MOONRAKER look like FUNERAL IN BERLIN. And if I can't keep a secret like that getting out I really would have made a crap spy...

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