Always a fun title for Charades, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy now adds film to its list of categories, alongside TV and the original book. I first encountered it when I was less than a teenager, as a BBC radio adaptation, which I don’t know the Charades action for. Subsequently the whodunit nature of the plot has not mattered to me as much as everything else that le Carré wrote about. As such, this review does not contain spoilers.

What constitutes the thriller element of the book clearly motivated le Carré, as it echoes the circumstances of the great betrayal of the British secret service whilst he was working for it by the Cambridge Five. When the fictional traitor is asked to explain his motivation for pulling Britain down, his answer is that Britain has already sunk so low:
“For a while, after [nineteen] forty-five, he said, he had remained content with Britain’s part in the world, till gradually it dawned on him just how trivial this was... he knew that if England were out of the game, the price of fish would not be altered one farthing.” (chapter 38)
The same ideas were expressed by Kim Philby, one of the Cambridge Five:
“He said he regarded himself as ‘wholly and irreversibly English and England as having been perhaps the most fertile patch of earth in the whole history of human ideas’. Asked why he had betrayed this wonderful country, he said that he held a ‘humane contempt’ for ‘certain temporary phenomena that prevented England from being herself’.”
This is the Britain le Carré writes about, trudging through a slough of post-imperial despond. It is a faded world, barely lit and frayed at the edges. The always-available second hand paperbacks do much to assure the reader of this, as does the text. Mentioned among early plot preparations and characterisations, one of the characters laments over the men of le Carré’s generation:
“Poor loves. Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away.” (chapter 13)
This seems to me to be the great concern of the 1979 BBC television adaptation. The blurred shapes of pre-HD TV suggest and depict a fallen England, ashamed and fumbling in the shadows. In the film too many of the characters’ suits are brand new and the sense of decay is given by mortuary lighting and colour: it is a pristine recreation, in contrast to the near-documentary feel of its predecessor.

Along with the plot (whose spider’s web intricacies are necessarily compressed), the main focus is on the men involved. Is this a spy film or a film which happens to involve spies? Certainly the metaphorical opportunities of espionage are prominent in the film-maker’s mind. Its intrusive nature is repeatedly emphasised by scenes being shot through windows, giving the audience a sense of empathy with the life of a spy, an outsider looking in. The performances of Colin Firth and Mark Strong are the most successful at translating this metaphor to the reality of the story, forcing the question of how far are they letting us in.

But what of Smiley? Alec Guinness’s portrayal of him for the BBC is mesmeric, effortlessly handling his many layers of personality and professionalism. His seeming ordinariness is a key element of le Carré’s writing, and Gary Oldman attempts something similar in his own way. His steel is closer to the surface, in contrast with the long periods of silence he also embarks upon. Unlike the many occasions we view through windows, the light often reflects off Oldman’s glasses rather than showing us what is happening in his eyes. Perhaps this is one window we can’t see through? It’s an acceptable alternative angle, but what marks the novel out for me is the many quiet tragedies it touches on, including Smiley’s. Moreover, the film finishes with Smiley victorious, hinting at a triumphalism that is familiar to mainstream movie-making and alien to the book.

Perhaps I wasn’t in a good mood when I watched it, maybe I’m too influenced by previous incarnations of a great story, but I left the cinema disappointed. It is an intelligent piece of film-making, which is reason enough to be grateful, but not sufficient to tear me away from books more often (mea culpa).