Fact: I have always harboured dark suspicions about George Smiley.
How come he always knows so much? How come he ends up as Control? Admittedly, this may fall into the same category of suspicions I have always harboured about Lawrence Oates in the Antarctic, viz., that the rest of the expedition ate him and then made up the ‘I am going outside’ story later. But nonetheless you’ve got to admit it does look a bit fishy.
Given this high level of imaginary engagement, I found the new Gary Oldman version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy strangely unsatisfying. It was like biting into one’s favourite kind of cake, only to find that the café which made it so perfectly before has now changed the recipe and removed all the flavour, texture and colour. Again this is odd, given that the visual qualities of this movie are very good, especially the scenes in the orange-lined meeting room. But perhaps that’s just the icing on the cake, which remained unscathed and created the illusion that the cake beneath was just as good as always.
Gary Oldman’s wonderful, but only because you know he’s not being Gary Oldman’s usual screen self – barely-smothered shrieks, rolling eyes, funny accents, a limp. Instead he just potters about with a big pair of glasses on, and that’s all very well and good, but if it were anyone else doing it, you’d say, ‘Why did he bother?’ But his George Smiley is a touching character, a subtle blend of incisive mind and cuckolded husband, and as such is true to form down to the mints in his pocket.
I also found the Bad Guy disappointing: I don’t want to reveal who he is for those who haven’t seen it or read it, but I expected more. The scene where Smiley corners him and he gets to justify his actions is extremely limp: the Bad Guy’s explanation is unconvincing in the extreme. I suppose it really is the kind of thing a person cornered would come out with – a piss-ant excuse based on vague emotional stirrings – and yet it’s supposed to support a colossal superstructure of treachery and double-dealing that’s been going on for years. But perhaps that’s what Le Carré meant it to be, because that’s pretty much how it panned out with Kim Philby.
It all looks right – everyone’s got the right sort of early 1970s hairdo, no one sports obviously anachronistic tattoos, they all smoke, the cars are cute – but it seemed to lack substance. Some of this is down to the fact that (as my sister pointed out) it really seems to be aping movies made in that period, where there are huge jumps from scene to scene, and nothing is really explained until the end. Much of it also takes place in the dark, which is of course good spy stuff, but hard on the rest of us who are just watching it happen.
It’s a sad and cynical story, though, and still a real winner after all these years. Myself, I yearn for the Tom Clancy-Frederick Forsyth school, where We Win and the President punches the bad guy personally, but John Le Carré is doubtless more realistic: messy unfinished business, untrustworthy people, and at the end of the day lonely middle-aged men go home to empty houses.