Sunday, February 26, 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Beautiful Malaise

Image Courtesy Focus Features

To begin:  A woman on the center aisle sent something like a toaster clattering improbably from her purse.  It was followed somehow by more.  And when she upended her sack to retrieve them, its entire remaining contents scattered like marbles.  Her bag had a marvelous capacity.  The theater and lobby were menacingly joined.  With the consequence that jangling registers and the prattle of fructose fingered attendants played on beneath anything resembling silence.  The only toilet on the whole of the main floor had been crammed beneath the projector.  Its flush was melodious.  Also, it seems sufferers of respiratory distress are keen enthusiasts for le Carré.  Popcorn was provided in brown paper bags so that every other sound was that of Christmas morning.  Hot dogs were cunningly served upon two microwave-hardened, tractionless halves of unjoined bun—to attempt one in the dark is its own occupation.  And for the certainty of good measure, the fellow at the aisle’s end fell asleep halfway through, and his gentle wife endured his snoring until compelled by the astonished choir of laughter to wake him.

And also there was the film.

Handsome and Impenetrable

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is John le Carré’s 1974 novel about the Manila-foldered reality of the espionage business at the waning edges of the Cold War, and the byzantine frameworks which make secret keeping possible, and the apparatus for keeping them, vulnerable.  This current treatment directed by Tomas Alfredson, is the first to bring George Smiley (le Carré’s rain soaked protagonist) to the screen since 1979, when Sir Alec Guinness deftly handled the role in a mini-series adaptation.  Here it is reprised by Gary Oldman in a spare, sepia-tone vision of the 1970s information trade.  The work draws from the memory and furtive imaginings which are the property of le Carré, and to be sure it is no matter of sunshine and flowers. 

In life David Cornwell, the man for whom John le Carré is the Savile Row nom de plume, served as a bona fide spook for British Intelligence during the fifties and sixties.  And despite such nervy firsthand experience, or perhaps because of it, his work aligns at a great distance from the flash bang of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, and centers itself instead on a high-resolution, macro view of the espionage business—its back rooms and book keeping—and upon the richly nuanced and brilliantly turned out characters which populate it.  With concern to mannerism Alfredson’s film adaptation faithfully renders the cold coffee, warm gin, and nicotine stained ambiance which hangs in the book’s air like the residue of a pub at close.  The setting is distinct and the mood is singularly palpable.  Regrettably however, while the dress and atmosphere of “Tinker Tailor” are points for praise, those other dimensions of le Carré’s painstakingly crafted work—those beyond the mere occasion of its backdrop—its convincing characterization and deeply constructed storyline, are both conspicuously absent.  

Precisely what obligation if any, a filmmaker holds out for the source of his material is a point with a history of broad interpretation.  Where the most liberal interpretations flourish, they generally do so by forging toward the essence of plot and character such that the filmmakers may have their merry way with what’s left.  On the other hand are works whose scope or structure is so vast, or so tightly bound, that they lend themselves poorly to attempts at creative manipulation.  What Alfredson and his screenwriter’s have chosen is a work belonging to the latter, and ill advisedly provided a treatment which belongs to the former.  The result despite all its careful attention to the topiary of 1970s men’s fashion, or the gritty tropes of 70s cinematographic techniques, nevertheless reveals as only slightly more than the stylish commercial for the film one expects to see: the film which responds intelligently to the source material; the one rightly expected to be superb.

It is true that the filmmaker lacks the narrative space which is the novelist’s luxury, with the consequence that he must considerably distill and refit the material in transcription.  In “Tinker Tailor” however, Alfredson fritters away precious time on countless establishing shots of Smiley treading delicately along English lanes as though struggling with incontinence; or upon a rush of abstracted interactions—no doubt intended as a stand-in for character development—with and between characters we do not, nor in this film, do we ever know.  In the same way that a rambling diatribe about toasters, whooping cough, and slippery hotdogs does nothing to expedite the substance of a film review, so endless clever cutaways to dumbwaiters, or holiday parties imbued with the implication of significant gravity, do nothing to advance the framework of a highly faceted espionage film.

The doom that comes to this draft of “Tinker Tailor” was certainly not preordained, but comes largely as the result of the free hand which Alfredson and his writers seek to have with its retelling, along with a considerable preference for style over substance.  Le Carré himself had his work cut out in composing this story, and his narrative and structural decisions are informed largely by the necessary balance of tension with the simple imperative of expediency.  Whereas in the film, where the first thing we know (when we know nothing at all) is that there’s a mole: in the book this revelation doesn’t present itself for some seventy pages, during a scene in which Peter Guillam has spirited Smiley away in his sports car to a meeting at Lacon’s shambling wood-paneled estate, and Ricki Tarr unfolds the elaborate and compelling tale which facilely introduces the pertinent players, and jump starts the narrative with a purpose.  The decision to trade this elegant section for the cubist early movements of the film, may have been the single most costly mistake of the enterprise.  The cohesion achieved with le Carré’s one scene is never replicated in the course of the entire film.      

The irritating paradox of “Tinker Tailor” is that despite utterly failing to convey an intelligible story, wasting a flawless cast, entirely missing the mark with regard to character—le Carré’s Smiley however dry and reserved, remains richly pearlescent, where Alfredson’s Smiley is merely dead—everything praiseworthy about it, belongs not to the film, but to the book: thereby reserving as the film’s principle accolade the simple fact of having chosen it.