Despite not having been caught up in the overwhelming enthusiasm for his nonetheless impressive debut film “Let the Right One In,” when I heard that Thomas Alfredson was to direct an adaptation of Le Carre’s seminal, perhaps definitive, Cold War opus “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” I was buzzing with palpable excitement. There was a considerable amount of certainty in my mind that Alfredson was the ideal director to effectively realise one of my personal favourite novels for two reasons: his style and his nationality. The Swede’s eerily haunting yet tenderly moving vampire drama possessed the precise kind of chilly objective coldness and starkly desaturated colour palette that could transfer so effectively to a gray and murky clandestine world of shadows, mistrust and paranoia within a merciless and clinically unwavering establishment of genteel privilege. Being a non-Brit specifically, the director also naturally harboured the detachment and objectivism necessary to fully exploit the dark heart of Le Carre’s quintessentially British thriller: namely, that under the ideological scrutiny of Western values the Cold War brought with it, the shroud of heroic and unwavering patriotism gives way to an ugly malaise within the establishment founded upon apparent fortitude. The unmasking of a high-ranked traitor within the secret service in the tale is not just the exposure of a deeply personal betrayal, in more ways than one for Smiley, but the exposure of the terrible truth that even someone so favoured and privileged by the establishment can turn against it, hence allowing the mask of honour and decorum to slip and reveal the crumbling corruption and decay of a once great nation when war and espionage both become a secretive, sly and dirty business.
On neither front does Alfredson disappoint, and the film transcends the mere praise of being a near-perfect adaptation of a complex and great literary work, but also an autonomous and distinctive work of art. The film assumes the early-seventies setting of a muted, gray Britain lurking in the shadows of a concealed war to the extent that the film feels not like a period piece set in a certain era, but rather like it was actually made in the early seventies. The period detail, from art direction to costume, is so immaculate that we simultaneously absorb the tiny subtleties of a quaint lost world without our attention being overtly drawn to them. The cinematography is similarly, quite something, with rooms in which shady conversations and deadly decisions take place being characterized not so much by shadow, but by the acrid and copious smog of cigarette smoke filling the air. The opening scene takes place in the apartment of the former head of the Secret Service, and the atmosphere of the sequence is rendered palpable by the grainy effect this smoke produces, and this is sustained throughout the piece.
The really superb elements of the film are those in which the creative talents involved conspire together to have the audience watch the film in a manner appropriate to the diegesis: in watching the clandestine world of subtle and secretive gentlemen spies we are encouraged to adopt the powers of visual perception so prized by the characters on screen. Alfredson places his often static camera at a distance from the action, allowing us to penetrate the myriad mysteries and depths of the mise en scene for subtle but crucial details, clues if you will: a fly buzzing around a car, two British bull-dogs on a desk, a slogan written on a wall, some chandeliers scattered around a room, the way a politician butters his toast. These slight behavioral details are a mark of nuanced quality the film shares with the justly lauded television adaptation, and whilst the piece’s quite formidable cast list would prompt us to expect a high level of verisimilitude and chameleonic submergence into the characters of the narrative, the level to which each performance is concentrated and internalized highlights the general acceptance of the suppression of emotion in the world these men occupy, and encourages us to read deeply into the double, sometimes treble, meanings of each gesture and expression. On this level of careful, exquisitely detail and understated meaning, the truly magnificent Gary Oldman sets the example for the uniformly exceptional cast, and in the work of the supporting cast the hypnotic naturalism on display covers a mesmerizing whirlwind through actual human emotion, from humour to tragic sadness. Kathy Burke is outstanding on this level, in the space of a scene generating a huge crude laugh, a reflection upon how the change in warfare has affected a loss of true British heroism, and a desperate plea that she should be forgotten lest the outcome of Smiley’s work destroys the idyllic lie of the past she chooses to believe in. The screenplay condenses Le Carre’s labyrinthine narrative into a more logical form, allowing us to be active in unraveling the central mystery as opposed to a spectator left in the wake of Smiley’s cunning, near omniscient intellect, and Alfredson’s direction of interviewees and the flashbacks they prompt deliberately becomes more subjective in style, immersing us dramatically and provocatively into the information presented to us and to Smiley.
These engaging tricks played on us by Alfredson, prompting us to probe into the depth and detail of the work as if we are spies, proves how similar the film-watching process is to espionage itself. Film is scopophilia: the desire to look, to be a voyeur, to see things we are not supposed to see, and what is the act of spying if not this? Le Carre and Alfredson both know that to be a spy is to be a dirty little man, in a dirty little room, enacting and watching dirty little adventures: “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” embraces every cost and ramification of the realization of this basic truth, but do other great spy films understand this truth?
One of the most atmospheric spy films ever made, Sidney Furie’s sixties masterpiece “The Ipcress File,” certainly understands the murky grim realities of Cold War espionage. Featuring a narrative based upon the paranoia of betrayal, international mistrust, and the fear of ideological zombification taken to the logical extreme of complete identity deconstruction, the style of the film represents a delirious and unsettling mélange of period iconoclasm and suspicious queasiness. John Barry’s simplistic and haunting score, Furie’s use of unconventionally skewed camera angles, the harsh cold realism of the gritty cinematography, and Michael Caine’s restrained and unglamorous central performance all contribute to a near tangible sense of sinister seediness of the spy game. De Niro’s underrated directorial effort “The Good Shepherd” employs a similarly restrained directorial aesthetic, sepia cinematography, immaculate period detail and a plot founded upon emotional and ideological betrayal, of one’s country, one’s friends and one’s self, to elaborate upon the crushing individual cost of espionage: Graham Greene’s human factor. In this film, as in Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” a mesmerizing ensemble cast all underplay their parts to hint at their characters’ self-defining repression, secrecy and persistently compromised sense of self. This type of individual recurs throughout spy fiction. George Smiley, Harry Palmer and Edward Wilson are fiercely intelligent and charismatic through their sheer normality in the face of high-pressure, irregular careers: yet all three are lonely, introverted and deeply flawed men, redeemed by the overwhelming importance of the work they do from disastrously isolated and repressed personal lives. These men are valued by the spy game to which they have dedicated their talents, but the cost is the sacrifice of their emotional happiness.
What of the more action-oriented cinematic spy, the protagonists of films which seek not to analyse the voyeurism and introversion embedded in espionage, but to use international danger and intrigue as the setting for exhilarating adventure? In the case of the James Bond franchise, the most interesting and effective films in the series are those who hearken back to Fleming’s original conception of a suave and heroic superspy internally persecuted by his many psychological flaws. If “Quantum of Solace” fails as a film, it is because the significance of “Casino Royale’s” ending has been misinterpreted: Vesper’s betrayal does not prompt remorse and guilt in Bond, but rather sharpens his sexual and violent ruthlessness and turns him into the estranged and driven agent of destruction he becomes. This transformation is crucial to understanding the many great interrogations of Bond’s psyche in the series; in “The Man With the Golden Gun” the parallels between spy and hit-man are made clear through the alike personalities of Bond and Scaramanga, and Bond’s devotion to his country becomes a mere veil justifying his psychotic drive; in “License to Kill” we see how when emotionally compromised the immense abilities of Bond can be turned to fuel a quest of vengeful rage; and in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” the grand tragedy of the character is that in creating such a symbiosis between himself and the villains he is pitted against, a woman who can finally end his misogyny must be put to the sword. In the case of the cinematic incarnation of Jason Bourne, the true murderous impulses and barely justified sense of vigilante barbarity embodied in the all-action superspy is covered in a much more introspective way: in stretching the character’s amnesia over a trilogy, both Damon and his directors, notably Paul Greengrass, can explore the devastating effects of objectively assessing a previous life, and experiencing not pride and excitement but self-loathing and guilt.
Alfredson’s film succeeds because the atmosphere of the work perfectly captures what the true nightmare of a world lived in the shadows must be like, but moreover because he understands the wider thematic resonances of a life lived in repression, duplicity, and dishonesty.