Friday, September 23, 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

I thought this film was wonderful. I came out of it feeling that the world had changed. People walking at night looked suddenly sinister, seething with subtext. Getting into the car to drive home seemed full of meaning and menace. The film had generated an atmosphere and I was still living in it - a real object lesson in dramatic art.

The Alec Guinness TV series was hugely influential on me in my teens, and I really didn't expect a two-hour adaptation to be comparable. Actually - in some ways it's better. Gary Oldman's performance as Smiley is astonishing - he is as mild-mannered and unassuming as Guinness, but he is also bitter, edgy and deeply disturbed. In one fantastic (and very theatrical) scene he is quite drunk (Guinness's Smiley would never have been drunk), and re-lives his one meeting with his great adversary Karla, using an empty chair to stand in as the other man. When the camera then takes Karla's viewpoint, the effect is totally chilling.

As with any film version of a complex book, there are losses. The mole is unmasked very near the end of the film, and Smiley's interrogation of him, which is the core of the novel and was brilliant in the TV version, is very brief here. Some of the great lines about the mole's loathing of America and Britain's role as "America's whipping boy" are sadly missed - I remember Ian Richardson delivering these with great elegance. But TV is more novelistic than film - and this film does what it needs to do with great elegance and power.

Whenever I see something really good, I try to learn from it. The next show is going to be about intensity and claustrophobia: I knew that anyway. Now I've maybe got a bit more idea how to go about it.

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