The ideological monoliths of the Cold War are gone. Can a film about a secret service traitor have any resonance for the modern audience, beyond the historical?by Jay Elwes / September 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Leonid Brezhnev’s visit to Washington in 1973, the year before le Carré’s novel was published, began a period of improved relations between the United States and the Soviet Union
The film adaptation of the 1974 John le Carré novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, from a technical perspective, a supreme exercise of compression. Its Byzantine plot is expertly crammed into two and a half hours of celluloid, in an effort of distillation described recently by Gary Oldman as like “fitting an elephant into a phone box.”
Oldman takes the lead role in this new adaptation and, in doing so, he takes on one of the iconic characters of British spy fiction: that of George Smiley. He does so brilliantly. Smiley, a spy-master, is that very British phenomenon, the interior man. Nothing is displayed. All is kept under wraps: secret. This makes him a very tricky proposition for an actor. Added to which, the shadow of Alec Guinness, who took on the role of Smiley in the 1979 television adaptation, is inevitably cast across this production. The TV series, which consisted of seven hour-long episodes, fixed Guinness in the popular imagination as Smiley and is widely regarded as one of the best television series ever made. For these reasons, this new film adaptation is a brave project indeed.
It is also a refreshingly unfashionable film, perhaps not surprising given that the core idea—that of a grand betrayal—is a dated one. We are not often confronted with the notion of belief—ideological, moral or religious—in modern popular culture—and even less so with the idea of betraying one’s country, if at all. So can a film about a secret service traitor, operating during the height of the Cold War, have any resonance for the modern audience, beyond the historical?
The bare bones of the story are these: Smiley has been sacked from the Secret Service, but is summoned from retirement by worried civil servants. There are rumours that a mole is at work somewhere near the top of MI6, or “the Circus” as it is nicknamed—would he investigate? As an outsider, he is especially suitable: any internal investigation would alert the mole. Smiley accepts the job, agreeing to clean the Augean stables and unearth the traitor.