October 13, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

One of the odder things about talking to people about politics today is the sharp generational divide. There are people who became politically aware before 1990, who remember the Soviet Union and there are those who became aware in the 1990s and 2000s. It seems almost amazing now, looking back through depression and terrorism, that in 1990 the world was transfixed by the fact that President Gorbachev had been kidnapped in his dacha and that the Soviet Union might be whirling back into disaster. The geopolitics of Brezhnev and of Stalin seem far off- shadows that have faded into the past and the haunting fear of the bomb has been replaced by the fear of the reemergence of the 30s. Keynes has replaced Kennan as the intellectual de jour. In that context, it appears strange that the political film of the year focusses not on tax and spend and the consequences of depression, but on intelligence and super power politics. John Le Carre's Tinker Tailor was dramatised brilliantly in the 1980s on the BBC of course- it returns to a very different world and its lessons are perhaps different.

The story of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was modelled on Le Carre's experiences as a British agent in Berlin in the 1950s when Kim Philby defected. Those shadowy events are transferred in the film to the 1970s and based around the character of George Smiley. Smiley the deputy to C, Head of the Secret Intelligence Services of the United Kingdom, is sacked with his master when an operation to find out the mole is botched. Years later, he is recalled to the Circus (the code name for MI6) to find out who the mole is. The story is convoluted and worth watching as a thriller. This is not a mindless film though. It leaves the viewer in no doubt what the cost of a double agent is: he spends not merely his treachery to his country but also his treachery to those he knows and loves the most. Matt Damon in another film dealing with the Philby episode said to the Philby equivalent that after betrayel he would always be alone. That truth is what Smilley and the others know about their double agent.

They also know it about themselves. This is a darker film than the original series. In that original series Alec Guiness fenced in the dark mentally with his Soviet opponent, Carla. In the film, Gary Oldman's Smilley does not fence intellectually: he sits like a Spider, like a Domitian in the centre of a vicious web of torture and broken images. There is no doubt in this film that Smiley is cruel. He lets people know that he knows their weaknesses- he reminds one not so much of a distinguished Oxford academic as of a deranged Strangelove. Gary Oldman's performance in this film is the supreme opposite of Guiness's performance: Guiness made Smilley a hero, Oldman makes him an anti-hero. Smilley has lost any sense of a private life and private redemption: we never see his estranged wife in the entire film, even Smilley's memories have cut her out- we see her back, we see her hair but never her face. Its significant because Smilley never shows himself to love or respect any other man or woman.

Loneliness is one feature of this adaptation but so is viciousness. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a post Guantanamo adaptation of the novel. The British agents in Soviet hands are tortured and we see it. A Soviet defector's guts spill into his bath- and the audience briefly sees his intestines flowing in the water. Smilley smiles as his friends cry. The mole maintains his sang froid as he sends his friends to hell of the Lubyanka and we are left in no doubt of what he has done. In that sense the film represents a time much more disposed to confront rather than endure its suffering- the rhythm of the 1980s was, for good or ill, different to that of the 2000s. Post Diana, Britain has changed: we are no longer a society in which it is axiomatic that agents are tortured and killed, but one that requires to see that torture, that death. This brutality reinforces the earlier theme: if Smilley must always think of darkness, then his character, smiling under its glasses becomes darker. Guiness's Smiley remained avuncular, Oldman's Smiley is vicious.

I think the medium of film suits this new darker Smiley. He is given fewer words to say, fewer things to understand. The social atmosphere of the series- the Oxbridge sophistication of the higher circus- has disappeared. Class is absent. Films cannot be as subtle or as drawn out as tv serieses but this leaves the characters within the film exposed, they can no longer talk to hide what they do. They have less time to give us excuses, to make us forget in the complexity of the character the simplicity of the role. Perhaps as well there is less time to develop the sense in Tinker Tailor of the ideology of the thirties- that low dishonest decade which created Philby and the rest was a profoundly serious decade. There isn't that sense of the disillusion with the West, of old men grown old who were once picked for their idealism and their youth but have now grown wrinkles over both the idealism and the youth. That's not there in the film and it darkens further the picture.