Men without women: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tomas Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan add a curious moment to their adaptation of John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: cautioned to discard anything in his life that might be unseemly, the dogged Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch, a name that’s purest Wodehouse) tells his male lover to pack up and leave the apartment they share — a move that reduces Guillam to helpless sobs. The twenty seconds in which this montage plays are silent ones. The fact that Guillam had a lover is never said aloud, is never alluded to again. Although it’s a two-hour distillation of a notoriously labyrinthine novel, Tinker Tailor relies on sequences like this to suggest the iceberg depths these characters conceal, and the force of the concealment lends pathos to the Cold War skullduggery, which even in the novel was forced and mannered, a sort of Goodbye To All That. It wasn’t and isn’t.

Lit in sepias and dull yellows through filters that look as if several decades of nicotine gunked the lenses, Tinker Tailor soaks in the dreariness of pre-Thatcher England. Until the jingoism of the Falklands venture sent an electric current through 10 Downey Street, the satraps in ludicrous raincoats and sporting too-long combovers sighed with the knowledge that their American cousins regarded them as at best a relative to whom you occasionally paid the obligatory courtesies. Le Carré’s vision had its mirror opposite in the world of the Bourne movies; by the time of The Bourne Ultimatum, in which the NSA and CIA computers and cameras gleam box-fresh, the United States had remembered it was supposed to this sort of thing — spying — better than anyone. The hyperkinetics of the Bourne franchise is of course not Alfredson’s sort of thing either but its depictions of men (it’s curious how the Bourne movies don’t know what to do with Joan Allen, whose rather frightening self-control and intelligence exist so that she underuses the latter and loses the former — just like a woman, these movies imply) indentured to the national security state are similar. They don’t have selves: they have job descriptions. If Tinker Tailor has a flaw, it’s accepting the reality that Gary Smiley, Control, and the other agents project little but their professionalism and devotion to their craft. The film has little dramatic heft except unraveling the plot hysterics. Except for some Richard Burton-esque self-hatred at being cuckolded by his barely seen wife Ann and a hushed, beautifully delivered monologue in which Oldman implies that he wasn’t as good an agent as he thinks, the actors don’t give performances; they’re closer to humors than people. They bring what their histories expect: John Hurt his sardonicism and bullfrog face (he really should play Auden sometime), Toby Jones his screech (Michael Phillips praises him as the greatest sniveler in contemporary movies), Colin Firth his multi-purpose affability. I don’t know what Tom Hardy brings yet but an exquisite mouth.

Finally, a word on the original BBC adaptation. I confess I haven’t finished it, although I’ve tried twice: in 2006 and eight months ago. John Irwin gets a directing credit but there’s much evidence any directing happened. Whenever Alec Guinness removed his owlish spectacles I felt a delighted frisson. To be fair, Alfredson’s version (and the novel) also grinds to a half during Ricky Tar’s monologue. Besides his fluidity, evident in Let The Right One In, to which I was indifferent, Alfredson brings touches of the absurd: a bird aflame as it swoops out of a classroom fireplace, an office Santa Clause with a Lenin mask leading the crowd in a raucous singalong of the Soviet anthem.

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