A mole at the heart of the Circus

Josephine Grahl finds a little too much unspoken in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

'Your mission, Benedict Cumberbatch, is to impersonate as many literary characters as possible over your career.'

Reviewing a cinema adaptation of a book you know and love is hard. Am I judging the film fairly as a work of art in itself; or am I criticising it, unfairly, for failing to live up to my own imagining of the characters and settings? You can’t divorce the film from its inspiration. Once a reinterpretation departs too far from the source material, you start to wonder why it still lays claim to the original material; why not just write something new instead?

“There is a mole at the heart of the Circus” – a Soviet double agent at the centre of the British secret service. George Smiley’s predecessor, Control, has worn himself out searching for the traitor and retired in disgrace. When a terrified agent suddenly turns up on the run from Russian assassins, with a story which confirms the existence but not the identity of the mole, Smiley is called from his own retirement to track down the traitor. Control has narrowed the field to five men, the tinker, tailor of the title; Smiley must finish the job.

Le Carré’s novel is one in which almost nothing happens; a thriller so restrained that the only dramatic event which is not experienced at second hand (as a memory or retelling) is one quiet arrest towards the end, where almost everyone concerned behaves with immaculate dignity.

Director Tomas Alfredson has spoken about the impossibility of filming the book, but he has a very good stab at it. The film is absolutely beautiful, in muted shades of grey and brown, with a chilly, mittel-European sophistication. The simplifications and elisions of the novel’s plot are neatly and cleverly done in order to keep the story understandable and the film within a reasonable running time.

Gary Oldman: not especially smiley

The acting is superb. Gary Oldman is brilliant – and brilliantly restrained – as Smiley; cold and austere and rather terrifying. Apart from the trademark jam-jar spectacles, he shares little with Alec Guinness’s celebrated portrayal of Smiley in the 1970s BBC dramatisation. Where Guinness was gentle and avuncular, Oldman is bleak and even ruthless, a man who has been disappointed – and betrayed – too many times.

He has some terrific back-up. Benedict Cumberbatch, devastatingly beautiful in his fitted 1970s suit and bowl haircut, has a nervy elegance which makes a good foil to Oldman’s shadowy, owl-like Smiley. Tom Hardy is brilliantly watchable as the fieldman driven half-mad by terror and suspicion, and Mark Strong’s broken former spy Jim Prideaux is a mesmerisingly intense performance.

But the rest of the cast are disappointingly underused. The camera dwells on Control’s chessmen, each decorated with a torn-out photo of one of the potential traitors; but the audience barely get to see these men or to understand what motivations they might have to betray their country. The casting decisions, and the total lack of character development for at least two of the four suspects, means that the viewer can confidently identify the traitor after that character’s third scene; rather earlier in the film than the director probably intends. It also makes one wonder about the point of the undoubtedly stellar cast: is there any need to get Ciaran Hinds in to speak three lines in four scenes?

Just another day selling snake oil at Alain de Botton's School of Life

This is the crucial failure with Alfredson’s film. The dangerous, high-drama sequences are terrifically executed: murder scenes in Istanbul, a shootout in Budapest, an official execution somewhere in Russia, all tense and excitingly shot. The high-stakes motivations are clear: people forced to do things so they won’t be arrested or tortured or killed.

But the human level, the low-stakes motivations, the petty competitions and jealousies, the jostling for power and status between grey men in shabby offices – all that falls into the background. In the novel, rootless eastern European Toby Esterhase is infinitely familiar, the caseman pretending he is more important, more in the know, than he actually is. He succumbs to Smiley’s questioning out of an abject need to stay on the right side (‘George, listen. If you’re wrong, I don’t want to be wrong too, get me?’). In the film, his weedy and unimpressive motivations are upgraded to the grander scale: it is terror of being sent back behind the Iron Curtain which prompts him to give Smiley the final clue to the double cross.

Leaving out the mundanity of the office rivalries isn’t necessarily a bad decision, of course: you could make a stylish thriller from the dashing violent bits, but it leaves out the essence of the novel. And this tension between the dangerous and the mundane is never quite resolved. In place of showing more of the suspected traitors, Alfredson gives you repeated flashbacks to a grotesque Circus office party, in which the Circus staff all rise for an ironic rendition of the Soviet national anthem, and Father Christmas wears a Lenin mask. It almost works, pointing up the personal loyalties and rivalries at play, but the jarring unlikeliness of it is at odds with the gritty retro-realism of the rest of the film. You can’t help but wonder: do spies really get together for a Christmas party?

Tinker Tailor the novel seethes with emotion, but not the grand kind: envy, ambition, spite and petty jealousy. The traitor reaches his position at the heart of the service not by dramatic measures, but by exploiting the vanity and status anxieties of his peers. This has the ring of truth; it says a lot about the postwar secret services following the unmasking and defection of Burgess, Maclean and particularly Philby. MI6 tore itself apart in the seventies looking for a non-existent fifth man. Competing factions abounded; unlikely and destructive conspiracy theories multiplied. CIA counterespionage chief, the paranoid and unstable James Jesus Angleton, undermined other Western security services without any more evidence than the dubious say-so of his favourite Soviet defectors.

Le Carré’s earlier novels use this milieu of mistrust and conspiracy to explore the question of betrayal: is it easier to forgive the man who steals a state secret than the man who sleeps with your wife? In Tinker, Tailor, the traitor does both: which is worse? With this in mind, the film neatly refuses to show either of Smiley’s twin passions face on: his wife Ann is a tumble of dark curls, and his Soviet rival Karla a dark-suited silhouette. Removing those personalities heightens the tension; but at other times the absence of motivation for individual characters is mystifying. Why does Guillam devote himself to Smiley’s mission, to the extent of destroying his own personal life? It’s not clear. Why is Control’s dictum that there are ‘three of them [possible traitors], and Alleline’ so seemingly resonant? Again, it’s left unclear.

Another interesting decision is to update every building described in the book as a sooty Victorian monstrosity to grimy post-war institutional modernism. Instead of the rabbit-warren Cambridge Circus building that gives the service its fictional pseudonym, Alfredson’s spies work in a battered Portakabins. Is this today’s visual language of mediocrity? Have government-issue prefabs replaced soot-stained Whitehall buildings as the defining architecture of  second-rate, post-war Britain? There’s now a certain nostalgia in the gloomy beige and steel of sixties architecture: think how recent BBC Cold War drama The Hour managed to prettify the hospital-green walls and institutional Bakelite of the 1950s BBC.

Perhaps the choice to use almost exclusively post-war buildings (Control gets a shabby 19th century mansion flat and Smiley is lucky enough to live in a Georgian terrace) is rather to draw the parallel between London and Moscow: communist/socialist architecture. This is the terrain that le Carré is often accused of inhabiting: the equivalence (in morality as in drabness) of Moscow and London, the liberal debate over the ethics of the Cold War. But here as elsewhere le Carré’s supposed ambivalence never goes that far: the British may be pompous, corrupted and incompetent, but the Russians are cold-blooded murderers.

This is a smart, beautifully filmed and gripping thriller, with some superb performances from an outstanding cast. Pointing up the lack of emotional depth is not to deny the intelligence and elegance of a film which overall does a splendid job of conjuring up John le Carré’s world of a decaying establishment, crumbling institutions, mediocrity – and betrayal.

6 thoughts on “A mole at the heart of the Circus

  1. “…murder scenes in Istanbul, a shootout in Budapest, an official execution somewhere in Russia…”

    Having just finished it, I know that not one of these is in the book. The last is stated to have *happened,* I suppose.

    Have they swapped Hungary for Czechoslovakia for some reason?

    The main thesis of the book, I felt on this re-reading, is simply that the moribund 70s UK is irrelevant, when seen in contrast with the two super-powers. Now that we don’t have any superpowers any more, is there an added element of irrelevance to the whole thing?

  2. Yes, Czechoslovakia becomes Hungary (surely not for budgetary reasons? Maybe just because Budapest looks so amazing through the grey Cold War filter), and Hong Kong becomes Istanbul (which might, or might not, rule out a film of Honourable Schoolboy).

    There is a lot in TTSS about the irrelevance of the UK. ‘Moscow Centre would give pretty much anything to buy Britain… if they could get the Cousins in return’ or whatever the quote is.

  3. Interesting point about the buildings (and thanks to this excellent review I really really REALLY want to see this film now).

    Maybe it’s an issue of perception. Everything Victorian/Georgian was considered shabby and “old” in the post-WWII years because people wanted to be surrounded by new, exciting things that promised a brave new world rather than the bleak grandiosity of Victorian buildings. At the time TTSS was written, the visual shorthand for shabby/underhand/oldschool etc would have been an office in a Victorian warren.

    Updating the visual cues for Circus-style tattiness to portakabins is, I think, quite clever. And the location scout probably struggled to find a usable Victorian building in London that hadn’t been tarted up…

    1. Yes – we rewatched The Ipcress File recently and it’s amazing how different Whitehall looks before they pressure-cleaned all the buildings. I can just about remember Central London being grimy black when I was a kid.

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