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Spy vs. Spy Update

August 21, 2012 by Reader's Connection

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I wrote a blogpost in 2010 about some spy novels and the movies that were based on them. I claimed that  John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was the best spy novel ever written.  There were hundreds of spy novels that I hadn’t read, so my authority here was doubtful; but nobody sued me, and I’m sticking to that opinion.

Over the weekend, I finally watched the DVD of the 2011 film version, requestable from IndyPL since mid-June, and here’s my addendum to that earlier post.

The story involves the search for a mole, a counterspy working for the Russians, at the top of Britain’s espionage establishment during the cold war. Agent George Smiley, who had been dismissed without honors from the service, is called back in to investigate.


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, SpyThis new film is so trimmed-down that we barely get to meet the suspects before the guilty party is identified. That’s a major weakness.  On the other hand, some characters are promoted. Rikki Tarr is an important character in John Le Carré’s novel–he’s a low-level “scalphunter” who gets people thinking about the possibility of a mole–but we don’t spend that many pages with him. With the overall story-time shrinking on film, we get to spend proportionately more time with Rikki, and I enjoyed actor Tom Hardy in the role.

The entire cast is great. Even the mole, though we don’t get to know him well enough, has a wonderful scene with Smiley after he is ferreted out. I do some spiritual teeth-clenching when I remember the green walls of the room where they talk.


Leon the ProfessionalAnd George Smiley himself.

I haven’t seen enough of Gary Oldman to make broad statements, but I thought his acting in Leon the Professional almost qualified as comic relief. The violence in the movie seemed less appalling than Oldman’s performance, which I enjoyed.

As the subtle,  clamped-down Smiley, though, Oldman is wonderful. He’s a master of 2-millimeter nods and withering eye contact, and he raises his voice only once in the film.

More typical is the way he says that was good of you to the mole in the green room. No raising of the voice is necessary. Those words are acid when Oldman blandly utters them,  just as they were acid when Le Carré wrote them. (Of course I can’t tell you what Smiley’s talking about.)



Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, SpySo I ended up enjoying the movie as a sideways presentation of Le Carré’s story, just as Shakespeare in Love and Stage Beauty and Slings and Arrows are sideways presentations of Shakespeare’s plays.

There are people, though, for whom this 2011 film is the first exposure to TTSS, and I think they must be confused. The story is so stripped down, and so many scenes are filmed in the dark, that I’m wondering if they were able to track.

I suspect that some of them have tried to fill in the gaps by watching the 1979 BBC version with Alec Guinness. My advice for these viewers is predictable: Read the book.


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