Monday 1 August 2022

GEORGE SMILEY novels and screen - Rod Bishop concludes his series looking over THE SECRET PILGRIM, A LEGACY OF SPIES and the feature film of TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY (Tomas Alfredson, UK, 2011)

The Secret Pilgrim

Then the legend began talking, and I realized I had never heard Smiley address a social gathering before. I had assumed it was a thing he would be congenitally bad at, like forcing his opinions on people, or referring to a joe by his real name. So the sovereign way in which he addressed us surprised me…This was the actor who had always lain hidden within him, the secret Pied Piper. This was the man Ann Smiley had loved and Bill Haydon had deceived and the rest of us had loyally followed, to the mystification of outsiders.” 

Removing his spectacles from his ears, he fumbled distractedly with his shirt front, looking for what, I could not imagine what, until I realized that it was the fat end of the necktie on which he was accustomed to polish his lenses. But an awkwardly assembled black bow tie provides no such conveniences, so he used a silk handkerchief from his pocket instead.” 

Smiley lectures to trainee intelligence students at Sarratt. He is introduced by Ned, an intelligence veteran and former head of Sarratt training programs. With each subject Smiley broaches, Ned reminisces about his own career as a spy, including his time before The Fall, after The Fall and post-Cold War.

Ned, whom we first met in le Carré’s previous novel The Russia House, is the central character in The Secret Pilgrim (1990), and le Carré, who makes a virtue out of detailed back-stories for his characters, probably built out Ned’s career from his notes for The Russia House.

Smiley’s role here is quite tangential, although his questioning of the moral ambiguities of intelligence work is used to trigger Ned’s recollections.

It’s a series of short stories, each bookended by Smiley’s brief inputs as he lectures to the trainees at Sarratt.

Like all le Carré’s books with George Smiley, there’s plenty of opportunity to ask about Ann. Ned is talking with Peter Guillam:

And Ann, his wife, I asked Peter, lowering my voice as one does when Ann’s name comes up – for it was an open secret, and a painful one, that Bill Haydon had counted among Ann’s many lovers.

Ann was Ann, said Peter, with a Gallic shrug. She had bits of family with grand houses on Helford Estuary. Sometimes she stayed with them, sometimes she stayed with George.”

A Legacy of Spies

Fifty-four years after publication of The Spy Who Came in from The Cold, le Carré gathered up its characters - Alec Leamas, George Smiley, Peter Guillam, Liz Gold, Josef Fieldler, Karl Riemeck, Control and Hans-Dieter Mundt - for this backstory to his famous novel. 

A Legacy of Spies (2017) also draws in le Carré characters from Call for the Dead (Inspector Mendel) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Jim Prideaux, Connie Sachs, Percy Alleline, Oliver Lacon, Bill Haydon, Toby Esterhase, Roy Bland) into a sort of memoir narrated by Peter Guillam, now called out of retirement in Brittany. The Circus is facing legal threat and public humiliation from the children of Alec Leamas and Liz Gold and must reopen and investigate the events leading to their deaths at the Berlin Wall.

Although talked about a lot, Smiley doesn’t appear until seven pages from the end, when Guillam finds him in a German reading room for visiting scholars.

“…since this is no sort of place for my planned confrontation, I ask him instead how Ann is.

‘She is very well, thank you, Peter. Yes. Very well, considering…she visits now and then. We walk. In the Black Forest. Not quite the marathons of old, I admit. But we walk’”.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), feature film

Directed by Tomas Alfredson, written by Bridget O‘Connor and Peter Straughan with Gary Oldman (George Smiley), Colin Firth (Bill Haydon), Tom Hardy (Ricki Tarr), Mark Strong (Jim Prideaux), John Hurt (Control), Benedict Cumberbatch (Peter Guillam), Toby Jones (Percy Alleline), David Dencik (Toby Esterhase); Ciarán Hinds (Roy Bland), Kathy Burke (Connie Sachs), Stephen Graham (Jerry Westerby), Simon McBurney (Oliver Lacon). 

Oh, dear.

Sometimes filmmakers suck the very life out of their source material, giving birth to a crippled and inert project. 

Worse still, this one seems to have come from a 12-year-old’s computer program with simultaneous failures of script and direction and a casting strategy of jobs-for-the-boys.

It’s more than two-hours of drama-draining mistakes.

Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Why cast Mark Strong, for instance, perhaps the UK’s most passive and stony-faced actor, to play Jim Prideaux, a man crippled by gunshots and betrayed by an old friend, boiling with rage and fixated on revenge? Mark Strong is incapable of showing any of that, and his Jim Prideaux - so powerful in the novel and television series - is just colourless and limp.

Another example: the capture of the mole Haydon, arguably the most dramatic moment in the novel and television series, was tension-packed during the meticulous bugging of the safe house; the listening room set up; the avoidance of creaking floorboards; with Jim Prideaux lurking outside, spying on the spies, hiding from the street lights and from Esterhase’s surveillance “lamplighters”. When Haydon is captured, a furious Guillam attacks him as the Russian diplomat Polyakov screams for his immunity. 

In this feature film, this sequence amounts to little more than a few set-up shots of the safe house rooms with Guillam walking up, opening the front door and finding Haydon and Smiley sitting silently in chairs with Smiley holding a gun on the mole. Tension and impact are almost non-existent. 

And for dodgy decisions, there’s a lot more where that came from. 

Gary Oldman apparently hoped to move on to a remake Smiley’s People.


Dramatis personae of Tnker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, le Carre front row, 2nd from right, Gary Oldman (Smiley) front row right

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