CINEMA: News Weekly
Into espionage's wilderness of mirrors
, February 4, 2012
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (rated MA), directed by Tomas Alfredson.
Reviewed by John Ballantyne
It is a mark of a classic that it can undergo more than one screen adaptation without any loss of impact or relevance.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), by British author and former intelligence officer John le Carré (real name David Cornwell), ranks with his earlier classic, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), as one of the great novels of the Cold War era.
Le Carré’s espionage fiction is set in the real world, not in fantasy. It is unlike Ian Fleming’s James Bond series (which never took itself too seriously) or the equally fanciful television series Spooks (which takes itself far too seriously).
Some of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s narrative was inspired by real-life events. The backdrop to the story’s plot is how the Soviet Union in the 1930s succeeded in recruiting young communist sympathisers from Britain’s top universities and persuading them to become Soviet penetration agents, or “moles”, operating in the heart of the British Establishment, especially in the intelligence organisations MI5 and MI6.
In 1973 (when the main events of the story take place), the identity of a high-level traitor is almost exposed by a Russian would-be defector who is tragically betrayed and killed. An almost identical real-life event took place in September 1945.
Early last year, I had deep misgivings on learning that Sweden’s Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) was attempting to compress into a two-hour film le Carré’s story, with its notoriously complex plot and sub-plots. Even the film’s star, Gary Oldman, who features as the story’s veteran spymaster George Smiley, admitted that it was like “fitting an elephant into a phone box”.
Cambridge spy ring
An earlier — many would say the definitive — screen adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was the 1979 seven-part BBC mini-series starring Alec Guinness, who modelled his Smiley on Maurice Oldfield, a former chief of the UK Secret Intelligence Service (better known as MI6).
Its television debut was unforgettable. The first episode went to air in the very week that the British art historian Sir Anthony Blunt was sensationally exposed as a former Soviet spy. He had been a member of the notorious Cambridge ring (which included Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean). Together they had penetrated Britain’s secret intelligence world and the Foreign Office in order to spy for Moscow.
In 1964, in exchange for a partial confession of his treason, Blunt had been granted immunity from prosecution and allowed to keep his knighthood and prestigious job as Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures. However, in 1979 Britain’s newly-elected Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, provided the House of Commons with the details of Blunt’s treachery, after which Blunt was stripped of his knighthood and position.
With Blunt’s treachery in the headlines, le Carré’s story of a mole at the heart of the British establishment suddenly became highly topical. Viewing figures for the BBC mini-series soared.
Alfredson’s two-hour film version, released in Australia in mid-January, while it has many strengths, suffers unavoidable shortcomings. Many of le Carré’s most important characters make only relatively fleeting appearances, and if you’re not already familiar with the story outline it is all too easy to lose the thread of the plot.
Nonetheless, the new re-telling of the story is a magnificent piece of cinema. Its subdued colours and menacing atmosphere capture the mood of the Cold War.
The story’s hero, George Smiley, is no James Bond figure, but a solitary and emotionally scarred man, brilliant at his job but a failure in his private life. He has been cuckolded by his swinging high-society wife and recently forcibly retired from secret intelligence work — retired, that is, until he is brought back to investigate the possibility of a mole having penetrated the highest level of British intelligence.
Alfredson explained to Oldman why he cast him in this role: “Your face — it looks like you’ve lived a bit. You’ve been through some stuff.”
Smiley’s mentor, Control, played by a haggard and morose John Hurt, has long suspected the presence of a mole in the heart of the Circus (the nickname of le Carré’s fictionalised intelligence service, because of its putative location in Cambridge Circus, central London).
He has narrowed down his list of possible suspects to five senior intelligence officers: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), and even his own protégé George Smiley.
When Control learns that a high-ranking eastern bloc intelligence officer is prepared to disclose the mole’s identity, he dispatches Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Budapest to make the rendezvous but not before warning him not to disclose the purpose of his mission to any of his colleagues.
The mission fails spectacularly and Prideaux is shot and gravely injured. He is captured and interrogated by Soviet spymaster Karla.
The bungled operation discredits the Circus and ruins the careers not only of Control, but also of his protégé Smiley and of the legendary Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke) with her encyclopaedic memory.
The old order gives way to a new bureaucratic hierarchy, now headed by Alleline. The Circus’s standing in Whitehall suddenly takes a turn for the better after it starts receiving a steady flow of what appears to be top-grade Soviet secret intelligence.
However, just as the Circus’s tattered reputation seems to be recovering, the question of treachery within its ranks dramatically re-emerges.
A junior British intelligence officer Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) is approached in Istanbul by a Russian woman Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova), who offers to provide the British with the name of the Circus mole in exchange for asylum in the West.
Gary Oldman as George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Historians of the Cold War will immediately recognise that this incident (set in 1973) and the dramatic events that follow are loosely based on the September 1945 attempted defection to the British of a high-ranking Soviet KGB officer, Konstantin Volkov, also based in Istanbul.
In order to establish his credentials as a bona fide defector, Volkov offered to provide the British with evidence not just of a single mole spying for Soviet intelligence but of seven moles. Two of them were then in the British Foreign Office, and five in the two major British secret intelligence organisations, MI5 and MI6.
News of Volkov’s planned defection was telegraphed to MI6’s London HQ. The MI6 director-general, however, was absent at the time. In his place was the service’s head of counter-intelligence, the notorious Soviet spy Kim Philby. Rightly fearing that his cover was about to be blown, Philby organised a crash meeting with his Soviet controller in London, Boris Krotov, to warn him that Volkov was about to betray them all.
So Volkov never succeeded in defecting to the British and alerting them to the enemy within. Instead, the Russians, on being tipped off by Philby, arrested Volkov in Istanbul. The following day his sedated and bandaged figure was loaded aboard an aircraft bound for the Soviet Union where he was promptly tried and executed.
Philby and his associates were thus able to continue their treachery unimpeded for another few years.
So Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s depiction of Irina’s failed defection attempt in Istanbul in 1973 is an unmistakable reference back to Volkov’s attempt in 1945.
In an eerie replay of the Volkov case, Ricki Tarr advises London HQ of Irina’s plan to defect and expose the identity of the mole. The Russians, presumably tipped off by the mole, seize Irina before she can act. They also pursue Tarr, who, they suspect, might be in possession of Irina’s secrets.
Tarr flees for his life, breaks contact with his British superiors and is presumed (wrongly) by the Circus to have defected to the Russians.
He manages to re-enter England undetected, and immediately phones the Cabinet under-secretary responsible for intelligence, Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney).
Is Tarr’s incredible story about Irina genuine? Or is it really Soviet disinformation designed to wreak havoc in the British intelligence world by sending it on an elaborate witch-hunt for a non-existent mole?
Lacon assigns the recently retired spymaster George Smiley to conduct a full investigation into the matter. Smiley’s protégé Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is still employed in the Circus, has the delicate job of stealing confidential office files for Smiley’s use.
Clear as mud? This is just the barest outline of the first half of the film. Blink and you’ll miss what it all adds up to — that is, unless you take the trouble to read the book.
Part of the skill of le Carré as a writer is his ability to convey the complexities and uncertainties of the intelligence world. James Angleton, the famous head of CIA counter-intelligence (from 1954 to 1974), used T.S. Eliot’s phrase, a “wilderness of mirrors”, to describe the Soviet Union’s manufacture of illusions and half-truths to confuse Western intelligence agencies.
(Deception, bluff and moral ambiguity are such a hallmark of le Carré’s espionage fiction that the Czech-born playwright Tom Stoppard wrote a hilarious spoof — or “le Carrécature” — of le Carré’s Cold War classics with his play, The Dog It Was That Died, broadcast on television in 1988. Alan Bates plays Q6’s Rupert Purvis, a bewildered intelligence officer caught up in an elaborate espionage operation of double, triple and even quadruple bluffs. In the end he doesn’t know whether he is really working for the British or the Russians.)
Tomas Alfredson’s two-hour film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, impressive though it is, lacks sufficient time to do justice to le Carré’s subtle plot or to develop the characters properly. The exposure of the mole at the end is a bit of a damp squib and not the dramatic finale it was in the book or in the 1979 BBC mini-series.
Nonetheless, Alfredson deserves high praise for introducing le Carré’s spy classic to a new generation of cinema-goers and for stimulating renewed interest in the decades-long clandestine global struggle that characterised the Cold War.
John Ballantyne is editor of News Weekly. A shorter version of the above review appeared in the printed News Weekly.