Fans of John Le Carre, and fans of the BBC Tinker serial starring Alec Guiness, have long looked forward to this film. And it is very good. But it’s not as subtle or beautiful a movie as we all might have hoped. Of course cold wars and secret services are neither subtle nor beautiful, but Le Carre’s book is, and that’s what we’re dealing with here.
Much of the script of the big screen Tinker is faithful both to the book and to the iconic Alec Guiness serial, and that’s a strong point in favour. In fact I reckon audiences who don’t know either will probably enjoy the film the more for it. Unfortunately I’m such a big fan of both the book and the serial – the movie was probably always going to fall short somewhere.
One place it does fall short by anyone’s standards is the soundtrack. The Tinker trailer certainly appears to use Hans Zimmer’s Inception soundtrack and the Alberto Iglesias number that runs through the movie could have been edgier. But that’s because I wanted a beautiful, dream-like experience and that obviously wasn’t what Tomas Alfredson was looking to create.
What he has done – very well – is get up close and personal to a dirty War that was seedy and disgusting on one side and plain evil on the other: the Cold War that went on well-defined but unseen for forty years, and goes on in variously ill-defined, terrible covert forms to this day. I’ve seen few more disturbing scenes than the graphic summary shooting of Ricky Tarr’s girlfriend in front of tortured Jim Prideaux – not least for the unexplained objects sticking in her ears when she is marched to her death: I don’t remember it from the book except as inferred (it may be in there, I don’t really have time to check) – but John le Carre’s cameo at the Circus Christmas Party would seem to imply it was approved, and if so, rightly so.
The tragedy of Tarr’s loss, the tragic madness of Connie Sachs, Toby Esterhase’s terror of repatriation, Bill Hayden’s cowardice and – what else of him? Perhaps like any weeping killer his is the most painfully scraped empty soul of all: but whatever it is, or whatever Le Carre intended it to be, Colin Firth carries it well.
You get to see pretty much all the characters tear out their poor hearts the better to serve the Circus in this Tinker , all of which makes way for Oldman’s goodly, compromised, academic – and interestingly hard-drinking – Smiley. The book leaves Smiley a tragic victor and a professional paragon; the film shows us a man whose only tragedy is his dirtied hands through years of service. Oldman’s Smiley is, famously, the first since Guiness and the first big screen classic Le Carre character since Richard Burton in the Spy Who Came In From The Cold (another great movie). Oldman’s always good, and he gives us much more of Smiley’s killer streak than Guiness did, although the original is so iconic, that however many sequels Oldman does, he probably knows he can never match it, (which is probably why he’s told interviewers he’s not trying to).
As I said earlier, Tinker Tailor in all its various forms has stayed faithful to the original and that’s a blessing at least because John Le Carre deserves it: I’d rate him up there with any classic author – everyone needs a medium, his just happens to be the spy novel, and the format doesn’t make his insights into human nature any less worthwhile than are, say, Philip K Dick’s insights about society at large, any less brilliant for the presence of space rockets and aliens. And Le Carre, the BBC, and now Hollywood all have Smiley ending Control’s terrible chess game again at the helm: errant wife back from her wanderlust, adoring clique at his back and call, and a great flat paving stone of East European manufacture firmly down before him for the sequel.
Let’s see how it plays.