Philip French of The Guardian reviews ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ and points out the links between ‘Smiley’ and some other great English fictional characters:
‘Directed by Tomas Alfredson, […] and adapted by the British husband and wife team, Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor, this is as lucid and accomplished a screen version of a long, complicated novel as I have seen. John le Carré is still best known for The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, his realistic 1963 riposte to the then burgeoning cult of James Bond, the title of which immediately entered the language alongside Graham Greene’s The Third Man and Our Man in Havana.
But the book that changed the course of espionage fiction came 11 years later. Following his single excursion into conventional psychological fiction (The Naive and Sentimental Lover), le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy set aside the terse style of Greene and Eric Ambler and brought together the dense, probing moral inquiry of Joseph Conrad with the institutional novels about the establishment and the civil service of le Carré’s great admirer, CP Snow, thus creating a powerful metaphor for a Britain in transition and decay.
At the novel’s centre is George Smiley, a physically insignificant, middle-aged man of great observational powers and moral principle, who inevitably recalls those recurrent fictional Englishmen of great probity, Conrad’s Marlow and Snow’s Lewis Eliot. Given a greater depth and complexity than in previous le Carré novels, he’s recalled from enforced retirement to investigate a Soviet mole in the higher reaches of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), an organisation nicknamed the Circus as a result of its headquarters near Cambridge Circus where Soho and Covent Garden meet.
The 1979 BBC TV mini-series lasted around five hours, which allowed its makers to create a deliberate pace and explore numerous narrative tributaries and made Alec Guinness’s quiet, purring, feline Smiley the definitive acceptable face of British espionage. The triumph of the movie is twofold. First, it takes the same story, shortens it, rearranges the order in which we are given the information, retains the book’s tone and homoerotic undertones, makes the impact more visual and retains the rich ambivalences. Second, it gives us in Gary Oldman’s performance an equally plausible Smiley, a tired, tested man, a quietly growling, canine figure, who physically resembles another, rather more glamorous British actor in the classical tradition, but also with a certain strain of sexual mystery – Michael Redgrave. […]
In addition to the atmospheric cinematography and the spot-on period designs, there are numerous emblematic images that stick in the mind: a cigarette lighter; the use people make of their glasses; points changing on the railway lines outside the shabby hotel where Smiley has established his HQ. And music is cleverly worked into the action. […]
There are also scenes linking dramatic strands through an old George Formby song on the radio and a jaunty version of Charles Trénet’s “La Mer” by Julio Iglesias. These are both cheeky and daring, but then this is a movie that surprises and satisfies in unexpected and pleasing ways’.
Read the full review at The Guardian here