In 2008 Tomas Alfredson lit up the vampire genre. His collaboration with author John Ajvide Lindqvist on Let The Right One In broke away the formulaic mist surrounding the vampire flicks that had occupied decades of cinema, and replaced it with a terrifying breath of reality. It typified the 1980s in a way that felt brutal and unsympathetic – not excessively nostalgic – and photographed a bewildering realness in dim, suburban Sweden. Alfredson was praised for his adaptation of the Swedish novel and immediately hammered in the yardstick. Meanwhile his efforts were being observed by the Hollywood heat-seekers, a fascination that got the US thirsty for a portion of the Scandinavian success story, amongst others, and last year saw the release of a stateside remake, Let Me In. However, for a director who admits he was ‘terrified’ by the attention that Let The Right One In brought him, it was certainly brave, if not mad, to tackle a second and arguably more terrifying adaptation; John le Carré’s seminal Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), a young Circus (MI6) agent on a surveillance mission in Istanbul, stumbles upon a goldmine of information after falling in love with and gaining the trust of his Soviet target’s wife. The information reveals a clandestine mole possibly integrated amongst the highest ranks of the Circus. Tarr, combusted by anxiety and desperation, approaches head of intelligence Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) to divulge the details. Having previously retired from the Circus following the collapse of a case in Budapest, which saw the attempted murder of fellow agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) and the demise of Circus leader Control (John Hurt), George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is pried back into the bitter sweet mechanics of the Circus to help uncover the sequestered Soviet double agent.
Surrounding Smiley are the many faces of the Circus; a cohort of stern yet fickle characters, believers in nothing but their own lies and often at torn edges with each other. There is no holding back on big names, possibly a pointer to just how much Alfredson turned heads, with Colin Firth playing the Circus’ deputy Bill Haydon, Toby Jones at the top as Percy Allelaine, along with David Dencik, Ciarán Hinds and Stephen Graham. Arguably one of the warmest appearances comes from Kathy Burke, as ex-Circus agent Connie Sachs, and uttering one of the film’s best lines to Smiley, ‘You’re seriously under-fucked’. According to writer Peter Straughan a line W.H. Auden once said in passing to John le Carré.
‘It’s quite easy to know when you turn on to something you read’, recalled Alfredson after a screening of the film at the BFI Southbank. ‘It was so impossible it interested me’, he later jokes. The job of trying to place a Swede’s take on the 1970s British espionage game amongst the legacy of both le Carré’s book, and Alec Guinness’s portrayal, is hard to grapple, but something that Alfredson seemed calmly un-phased by. ‘It is easy to get a new view on something, as long as the source material is good’. A logical view, and also one that possibly reflects this film’s position within the world of adaptations. With mounting concern over how loyal Anderson was going to stay to le Carré’s world, his clear decision seems to have visuals and narrative sensibly distant from their precursors, which works at shrugging off the adaptation label. Alfredson’s interpretation does genuinely suggest a new depiction of the story. As the journey of Smiley, and his younger counterpart Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), progresses through the deeper enclaves of the Circus, and the complexities of past and present acquaintances expands, the genius in Alfredson as story teller stands tall, but his ability to create tactile images charges to the fore.
There has always been an issue with how much angle you put on an adaptation. How fearless you are to step away from the written word. And how devoted you are to proving its place on screen. Le Carré’s novel was written in the 1970s, about the 1970s and carries with it no baggage of over referencing the decade. It digs deep into the cognition of the covert life, and rarely attempts to aid the reader. It is a demanding story about a demanding series of events, all taking place during a crucial transition period, particularly for Europe. Alfredson, and production designer Maria Djurkovic, clearly recognized this early on, striving to create the 1970s with as much normality and believability as possible.
Similarly to the subtle suggestions of the 1980s in Let The Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy utilises nascent technologies and changes in lifestyle as ubiquitous catalysts in the film. It explores not just how the decade looks, but how it might have felt. This was, after all, a decade when British and mainland European cars were losing their chrome cladding, wire wheels, and curved bodywork; exchanging them for rubber bumpers, a beige colour wheel, and acute angles. It was an intense turning point for the way politics affected people’s lives too, a perceived dichotomy between honesty and betrayal, young and old.
Admittedly breast-fed on the delights of British television and making regular visits to London during the 1970s, Alfredson, and director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema, manage to capture the era intelligently. Without refraining to slice in slightly misguided zooms that home in to highlight a scene change, or the rough stubbled grain of the stock, there is an appropriately old-fashioned approach to the fluidity and tactility within Alfredson’s telling. Also, it’s through the cross process-like portraits, and mildly undersaturated close-ups, that the care for the heritage of the source material comes through. There still remains a strong modernity to the photography however, a quality that at times feels like the detail and crispness of IMAX; the images feel huge, vast, and inconceivably detailed. Other times the film stands on a stage, dramatic and focused, with an intense static satire close to fellow Swede Roy Andersson’s You, the Living. Breaking up the cinematographic style in this way details the importance, and also futility, of the action in Smiley’s investigation. And carrying more kinship to a 1970s ident for Thames Television, rather than rapidly paced spy thrillers, shows that it affectionately adapts beyond the source material too.
As Smiley becomes the picture of stoic intellectualism in a brisk wind of deceit, internal paranoia, and abrasive international relations, the surfacing of his surrounding cast as significant suspects in a wider problem of betrayal and broken bridges begins to boil. It is evident how extensive screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan were with evaluating what elements of John le Carré’s novel were needed to truly adapt the story, and there is an intelligent effort to merge and composite scenes in order to comply with the restrictions of film. But, sadly, there are times when the narrative is slightly negligent to the construction of an enticing story, and the momentum of escalating suspicions amongst the Circus hopes to imply tension, but just simply lacks it, leading to a subdued climax and partially fragmented resolution. The film is the picture of cool and it represents the side to adaptations that should be applauded, but at times the numerous crossovers of story, history and former glory, tangle the flow into something occasionally overcomplicated.
Alfredson works to construct a scene the way you recall a paragraph, with eloquent editing decisions and accurate interpretations of le Carré’s descriptiveness. In some cases fifty pages of the book can be seen, and understood, in just a few seconds of film, and that is where the film triumphs.
The era is so prominent in his depiction that it can’t help but absorb the limelight, and it should. There is an affection that surrounds both the automotive and architectural elements of the film, along with the atmospheric haze of cigarette smoke and whisky fumes. It is a truly creative adaptation; one that sees a production team brave enough to tell their own story. There is also an endless amount to be said about the synthesis of the leading cast, and further so about the dedication of the writing team. Although the film may falter at times, and brush over certain details, it makes up for this with a seldom seen synergy of image and story, with more than enough punch to keep Alfredson and his close production team up there as one of the most daring and inspiring.
Jamie Isbell is the 2010 winner of the Frank Capra Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Film Criticism. His winning essay, ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and the Cognitive US-Mexico Border’, was published in Film International 52, vol. 9, no. 4, 2011.