Saturday, March 31, 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)

Spies, Inc.

After the international success of Lat den ratte komme in (Let the Right One In, 2008), Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson decided the next step in his career was to put aside vampires in exchange for spies.

And damned if he wasn't right. The twilight realm of vampires isn't quite as eerie as the half-lit realm of international espionage; the undead figures lurking in the margins of the former, their souls irretrievably lost, aren't quite as haunting or perverse as the half-alive figures lurking in the latter, their souls irretrievably corrupted. Werwolves and vampires? Pfft. Try lamplighters, pavement artists, honey traps and wranglers, not to mention the much-feared scalphunters. John Le Carre (pseudonym for David Cornwell) was an officer in both MI5 and MI6; he eventually used variations on the terminology spoken in his workplace to help paint the gray world of his novels.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, published in 1974, is the first third of what is generally considered Le Carre's masterwork, The Karla Trilogy. The novel tells the story of former spymaster George Smiley, dragged out of retirement to root out a possible mole--an 'undercover' or 'deep penetration' agent who has risen in the ranks and now helps run The Circus, Britain's secret service (so named because the services' fictitious headquarters are located at the famous junction). His former boss Control had narrowed the suspects down to five people before he died (of a broken heart, some say), and given them corresponding codenames: “Tinker,” “Tailor,” “Soldier.” Skip “Sailor”--sounds too much like “Tailor;” reject “Rich Man” for being inappropriate and substitute “Poor Man” instead. Smiley himself was (and I'm sure the irony wasn't lost on Control) “Beggarman.”

That's it, really, the entire premise (partially based on the true case of real-life double agent Kim Philby); all the complexity that follows is just Le Carre jumping back and forth in time and space to piece together the narrative, odd bits of knowledge painstakingly collected that, paradoxically, Smiley already knew in one form or another; he just was never able to bring himself to work the puzzle (the novel you might say is one long, jumbled hunt Smiley conducts in the thickets of his memory). The challenge of any adaptation, of course, is to translate this complexity to the small or large screen, transfer it so its greatest trick is preserved: that at the right moment the whole thing falls away to reveal the simplicity, the elegance of the mystery's solution.

The first adaptation of the novel was done for the small screen, directed by John Irvin and starring the late Alec Guinness. It ran for over three hundred minutes; Alfredson's 2011 version runs for a little over a hundred and twenty.

It's easy to beat up the latter with the former--to my mind, still the definitive version. At six hours, the mini-series had room to breathe, to follow Le Carre's vision more faithfully; Guiness in turn had room to carve intricate detailing into his role. He had a beautifully modulated voice (it was as if his larynx was fluted) and he could sound like a weary bureaucrat or relentless schoolmaster, sometimes alternating from one to the other within a line of dialogue--this mix of self-effacement and strength was so influential Le Carre reportedly modeled Smiley more and more on Guinness' performance in the subsequent novels. 

Director Irvin's straightforward approach helps ground the story in an everyday world; when asked what The Circus' offices looked like, Le Carre noted that they resembled the BBC offices--whereupon Irvin filmed some of his interiors there. The result: greater authenticity at (presumably) considerable savings, with a possibly unintended but nevertheless potent point--that intelligence organizations are essentially bureaucracies, are as faceless and joyless and impersonally malevolent as any other government or corporate entity. They are us, basically, only more so.

The length, the look, the feel of it was of a piece--how could a feature improve on this? How could maverick actor Gary Oldman improve on Guinness? Apparently they didn't try; the filmmaker gives the film an entirely new image, magnificent Edwardian-style buildings refitted to serve as offices somehow aestheticized, made to look beautiful--all faded red brick, pitted stone, stained green steel (look carefully and in one shot you can spot an open pit surrounded by railings, the floor below teeming with staff). For the Circus archives Alfredson presents an ant-farm view, layer atop layer of flooring and library shelves in labyrinthine cutaway, full of people scurrying right and left carrying files (Is the image digitally created? Where does he find these amazing locations?). Not, perhaps as grimly realistic as the BBC offices, but ravishingly decrepit.

Against this gorgeous decayed backdrop Alfredson uses a series of motifs. The suspects are represented by chess pieces with tiny photographs taped clumsily to their necks; Control's fall is represented by repeated flashbacks of Budapest, and the shooting and capture of Jim Prideaux (his crooked body lying on the street echoes Control's body lying crookedly on the side of the hospital bed). In the mini-series the Circus' rumpus room, its holy of holies where four of the suspects meet, is an anonymous conference room with antique (or faux antique) wood chairs; on film Alfredson has an entirely different conception--a large space lined with what at first glance looks like a ghastly checkerboard pattern, in that shade of unnatural orange made popular in the '70s. On closer inspection the checkerboard is even more bizarre--orange foam sculpted in corrugated patterns to dampen sound, helping proof the room from all kinds of eavesdropping. The effect is unreal: entering it is like entering another world, where time has stopped and potent spells (or state-of-the-art technology, same difference) have evoked an enchanted cave of sufficient security and quiet (or at least the illusion of security and quiet) to allow one to scheme, and map out a plan of action.

Film theorist David Bordwell in a series of excellent posts compares Guinness and Oldman's Smileys, noting that Guinness is like an old pedagogue explaining each turn and twist of the intricate plot; Oldman's Smiley is a more opaque creature, his mouth hanging absentmindedly open, his glasses obscured by reflected light. He keeps his cards so close to his chest you begin to project your own thoughts and feelings on his tabula rasa of a face. He's a more brusque Smiley, though (possibly because he has less time?); he pressures his bosses and victims till they both crack. He's an angrier version of the character (as angry perhaps (or so Bordwell believes) as Le Carre must have felt towards Philby), but the anger is banked, hidden, so as not to alarm others. We really see that fire only once, when Smiley finally confronts the mole; for the most part it's like a steam engine thudding away relentlessly behind steel plating--you sense it more than you actually see it.

I look at Oldman and despite Bordwell's insistence that it's a variation, I do see a lot of Guinness' Smiley in him; I doubt if Oldman can avoid this (Guiness did help shape Smiley's future incarnations). Oldman's approach basically is to preserve the mystery of Smiley, somehow give us the sense of a man hiding the rage inside him--the rage burning like thermite through the length of a foreshortened story. 

Is it different? Alfredson takes the liberty of having his aged spymaster take the occasional dip in a heated outdoor pool (presumably with other retirees), and it's startling to see Smiley, who one pictures as a shapeless mass of flesh wrapped in thick tweed, paddle his way across the steaming water, his receded chin breaking surface like a ship's prow. Smiley in swim trunks? One shudders.

At one point Smiley confides to his torchbearer Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) about the time he actually met Karla, and here for once the film exceeds the series--where Irvin made the conventional choice and showed the encounter in a flashback, Alfredson stays with Oldman who, using nearly all the text from the equivalent passage in the novel, sketches what happened.

Gradually an image emerges from Oldman's words. Alfredson's camera slowly glides around Oldman, the lenses fixated on him, giving us the sense of someone (Guillam, perhaps) watching--of someone unable to look away; Oldman gazes at no particular point, and as he speaks we realize that he's gazing not at anything before him but rather at something behind him, in the distant past. His gaze becomes so intense you actually feel a third presence in the room with eyes every bit as implacable, a ghost almost (believe it or not, I could feel the hairs on my arms stiffen and rise), a living if insubstantial memory mocking him with its inscrutability. 

That's the moment when I finally bought into Oldman's Smiley, the moment that made me understand: this Smiley held a vendetta of a kind against Karla and was determined to root out the mole. 

Is the film better? Not definitively, no; I'd call this a summarized, stylized version to the mini-series' expansive, more truthful one. I'd call Oldman's Smiley an enigma nursing a relentless (if repressed) bloodlust to Guinness' more empathic mandarin. One takes different pleasures from one, dwells on different flaws from the other. On its own, though, I can say this of the film: excellent interpretation, and one of the best features of last year.

First published in Businessworld, 3.23.12


ben said...

I know this will seems out of place but I really thank you for reviewing Filipino films. I'm an aspiring Filipino film enthusiast and rarely do I find a Filipino devoted to his culture.

Once again thanks for all your posts :]

Noel Vera said...

Out of place? Thanks for the kind words!