As the dogs days of summer — at least for us in the northern hemisphere — paddle in from the season’s heat and humidity before autumn makes its annual appearance, Rachel’s cool (like that British season) selection lands for this edition of our duo post series. Our second time (and Rachel picked the first, as well) ever with an author of some repute in the espionage genre. Does David John Moore Cornwell ring a bell? No? He’s one of the most important writers of this type of fiction still living and contributing today. Recognized by a plethora of readers across continents, perhaps his codename will:
His seventh novel is at the center of this conspiracy, one which set the stage once more for complex intent and intrigue rather than Ian Fleming’s more sensational derring-do with his titular character. While Smiley, George Smiley, is not quite up to jumping from tremendous heights, or into multiple beds with women he barely knows, the aging spymaster is certainly fluent in his craft, and dealing with “The Circus”. The British foreign intelligence service, even after detractors feel they can live without his like.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy the acclaimed 1974 novel that took the author’s most noted fictional character to prominence, during a period with nary a cell phone or multi-touch screen in sight. Where analogue was still the lingua franca of subterfuge and state secrets, and you best have your wits about you, if you’re to survive the dark trade and politics of the profession. As is our custom, the Scientist Gone Wordy will look at that novel while I’ll review the 2011 feature film adaptation. The wordy one’s book review can be found here:
A brief synopsis of the film: As the Cold War snuck into the start of the 1970s, the head of British Intelligence, “Control”, resigns after a failed operation in Soviet-controlled Budapest. Also dashed was his firm belief “The Circus” has been compromised by a mole. One of the four upstarts in the service who’ve supplanted him in the aftermath likely a Russian agent. The true purpose the Hungary undertaking had attempted to solve.
His faithful underling, George Smiley, forced into retirement with the headman’s ouster. Only later is George asked by a senior government figure to investigate the spiel whispered by a rogue agent that a sleeper does exist. Smiley always considered the failure of the Hungary endeavor, and the continuing success of Operation Witchcraft with its unnamed source of significant Soviet intelligence, suspect. Hence, the task of uncovering the traitorous spook becomes his.
[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]
“We’re not so different, you and I. We’ve both spent our lives looking for the weakness in one another’s systems. Don’t you think it’s time to recognize there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine?”
Interesting to return to this espionage tale after my first encounter with the material some thirty-five years ago. Then, through the award-winning 1979 BBC TV miniseries, starring Alec Guinness as our quiet hero. Stretched to almost six hours of public television viewing, at that. Offered an absorbing contrast to what Roger Moore (ahem) extended during the decade, to say nothing of the post-Watergate paranoia we faced on this side of the pond that Three Days of the Condor gave face to.
Best to remember the old axiom, “There is no such thing as a friendly foreign intelligence service.”
Still, the elegance of Tomas Alfredson‘s modern adaptation of the now ancient Cold War particulars Le Carré laid out long ago resonate as only British storytelling can. Like a grand puzzle placed before you. Pieces in plain sight, the final picture nowhere near anything coherent; whatever beauty hidden by the seemingly innocuous clutter in front of your eyes. Its potential patiently waiting for the persevering to begin their journey of uncovering the mundane tidbits the sane always leave behind.
This was a marvelous, if on the slow side, fabrication of life in the shadows of clandestine undercover work. The talented few ferreting out the real and the falsehoods between the nation states most of us live in. Those small everyday players bequeathed to carry out the government eavesdropping behind the scenes from their drab workrooms and lives, in the course of sound-proof room office politics. Way before they manifested into those damn humdrum cubicles many of us today call our second home.
Unlike Bond’s exciting, globe-trotting exploits, Le Carré’s characters somehow connect with readers and movie audiences because they are more apt to reconcile themselves with these put upon souls, dealing with the vagaries of their work, even if it’s spy work. Besides, they know no one is ever going to hand them the keys to a DB5 with an ejection seat. Just never going to happen. Getting canned for screwing up the job, others craving your job title, let alone the petty jealousies, is just everyday for everyone.
It’s the open secret of the world John Le Carré builds with his spy novels, I think, just with brilliantly conniving people doing the sparring.
Plus, it’s sooooo British. No one tells a tale involving the English, in whatever shape or manner(s), than they. Be it in novels — even if I can’t get through the famously intricate prose of Le Carré for the life of me — or through the moving picture mediums. Say what you want, most of their productions unfold with unfettered restraint, by those with an eye to detail few possess1. That, along with what author Lee Child said in his last Jack Reacher novel (paraphrasing), “…they didn’t conquer the world by being nice.”
See The Imitation Game, if you don’t believe me.
Damn, what is it about British film? I swear almost every year, they line up an all-star cavalcade of UK acting talent for such a work as this that makes similar American ventures look like ensemble excuses for overacting and vulgar scene-chewing (yeah, I’m look at you, August: Osage County). Here Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, and that cad Benedict Cumberbatch once again prove my point. Jeesus!
George Smiley: “I want to talk about loyalty, Toby. Control recruited you, didn’t he? He found you starving in a museum in Vienna, a wanted man. He saved your life, I heard. And yet, when the time came… when it came to picking sides between him and Alleline, you didn’t hesitate. It’s understandable, perhaps, with your war experience. You survived this long, I suppose, because of your ability to change sides, to serve any master.”
Easterhase: “What’s… what’s this about, George?”
George Smiley: “It’s about which master you’ve been serving, Toby.”
I admit, at first I had my doubts Swedish director Alfredson could pull it off. Not because of him exactly, 2008’s Let the Right One In being a masterwork, and all. But could the novel’s dense 355 pages, which took a few hours of miniseries form to translate previously, be distilled down to a modern-day feature-length film? Say with a 127-minute run-time. Screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan proved it could, if you’ve the resolve to wait for un-Bondian gratification, that is.
Leave this to the grown-ups in other words, maybe practice with PBS Masterpiece Theater in prep, if you feel the need.
This a study of personal and public betrayal, along with treason, brought to a complicated light by gifted filmmakers. The antithesis of the spy franchise everybody and their mother knows about. Sure, it is convoluted, with a handful of subplots weighting it some. The film’s pendularly non-linear storytelling may prove to be too much for some. That’s not a bad thing, though. A John Le Carré story is almost always worth the early head scratching, especially in this, one of the best efforts to date.
Still, don’t think I’ll ever get Gary Oldman swimming bare-chested, with other similarly pale Brits, in some dark brown water slough out of my head after this — no wonder they could conquered the world…for a bit.
Parallel Post Series
- The Shining
- The Accidental Tourist
- Apollo 13
- Brokeback Mountain
- Breakfast at Tiffany’s
- – 2014 posts
- – 2013 posts
- – 2012 posts
- – 2011 posts
- – 2010 posts
- Gary Oldman went to Old Focals, an eyeglass store here in Pasadena [California], to search for the right glasses to fit George Smiley: “Glasses are funny things. For Smiley, they’re iconic. It’s like Bond’s Aston Martin or vodka martini.” Oldman tried on hundreds of glasses frames before he found the appropriate spectacles. ~ IMDB ↩