It’s always exciting, and a bit frightening, when a promising foreign director makes his English language debut. It’s exciting because it could mean seeing a great talent being given a larger canvas and bringing his skills to the masses, but it’s frightening because all too often the transition just doesn’t work out. Sometimes we see talented directors like Oliver Hirschbiegel getting attached to Hollywood dreck like The Invasion (because two remakes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers apparently wasn’t enough) because they think it will be their gateway into the market, but more often we simply see situations where these foreign directors make ambitious projects that just don’t connect like Gavin Hood’s Rendition or Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Tourist. Still we do occasionally see a successful transition into the English language market, and one of the most prominent examples that comes to mind is that of the Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, who followed up the masterful City of God by making the cool and accomplished John le Carré adaptation The Constant Gardener. Of course Meirelles would go on to disappoint with his next film Blindness, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that he was able to break into the English language market really effectively with his sophomore effort. Now it looks like the Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (director of the well received vampire film Let the Right One In) is looking to take a page from Meirelles’ book by making his first English language film another Le Carré adaptation, and of one of the author’s much more famous novels to boot.
The year is 1975 and the Cold War is in full swing. George Smiley (Gary Oldman) has been in retirement for a year after he and his boss, who is known only as Control (John Hurt), were pushed out of MI6 because of a botched operation in Hungary a few years earlier when he’s approached by an agent named Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) and is asked to help him find the mole in the agency who was likely responsible for that botched operation. To do this, Smiley needs to investigate his old colleagues: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) AKA “Tinker,” Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) AKA “Tailor,” Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) AKA “Soldier,” and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) AKA… “Poorman.” To find the mole he needs to hunt down and work with the field agent who came up with the mole theory, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), who had heard about the mole while investigating a Russian crime boss (Tomasz Kowalski) and his wife (Svetlana Khodchenkova) while in Istambul. The catch is that MI6 believes (possibly because of the mole) that Tarr is a turncoat, and consequently he’s a wanted man that Smiley needs to find first.
Did you catch all that? Don’t worthy, neither did I, in fact I’m still trying to piece together a lot of it. It isn’t easy on the ego to admit that a movie confused you, but that’s pretty much where I stand on this movie and I don’t necessarily think it’s my fault either. Alfredson does little to explain the various espionage techniques, and I’m still not exactly clear on exactly what they did to find the mole at the end. complicating matters even further is the way that the films shifts through time, simultaneously telling the main story of Smiley investigating his old team and the story a couple years earlier when the team was all together. Alfredson doesn’t do much to mark these flashbacks, and because they don’t take place all that far apart in time the décor and the character’s appearance doesn’t change much between the two timelines. I suspect the root of the problem is that 127 minutes just isn’t enough time to fit Le Carré’s 400 pages of dense spycraft. Perhaps if we had the five-plus hours that were allowed by the late-70s BBC miniseries adaptation this all would have been better explained and given more room to breathe, but in this short format the audience is given so much information in so little time that I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect them to keep up.
Still, even if the spycraft was all completely clear I still don’t think the film would really work because another element of the material that’s lost here is character development. I correctly guessed who the mole was shortly into the movie based solely on who was cast to play him and how he acted, but it didn’t really matter because we don’t really get a good enough sense of who these various suspects are beyond their code names and the British character actors chosen to play them. I know, for example, that Percy Alleline has a higher rank than Toby Esterhase and that Bill Haydon seems to have played a bigger role in Smiley’s life than Roy Bland, but we don’t really have time to know what any of these men do with their free time or what got them into the spy trade. We do get some idea of the comradery and friendship that the men shared when working as a team, but it’s such a dry and soulless type of friendship that it’s almost completely unrelatable. I could see how all of this could have been fleshed out properly in a novel or miniseries, but again, 127 minutes just isn’t enough time for all of it and consequently the audience has no real stake in which spy will end up being the traitor.
It would be easy to say that the idea of making a feature length film out of Le Carré’s novel was a bad idea to begin with and that screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan simply couldn’t make it work, but Tomas Alfredson bears some responsibility for this failure as well. The director does give the film a very cool look and handles the occasional scenes of more traditional field espionage well, but his tendency to restrain rather than enliven his material ultimately hampers the movie. This same sense of restraint worked wonders for Let the Right One In but there’s a big difference between making a vampire movie (which can easily head deep into the other direction into sensationalism) and a talky Le Carré adaptation which needs to have that extra spark in order to really make the material come alive.
That’s why Fernando Meirelles, whose highly energetic City of God was almost music video like at times, proved to be a much better choice to make a Le Carré adaptation than Alfredson. While The Constant Gardener was certainly more restrained than City of God it still maintained some of that film’s vibrancy and urgency. “Vibrant” and “urgent” are hardly the words anyone would use to describe Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which largely consists of old English people sipping tea and speaking in trade jargon. Granted, The Constant Gardener was probably a much more adaptable and infinitely more relevant work to begin with, but that doesn’t change the fact that it puts Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to shame. Still, there are moments and elements here and there in TTSS where a more compelling drama is able to shine through. Perhaps there’s a longer director’s cut in the vault which will work better, and this does have me curious about reading Le Carré’s novel, but as the film stands it’s the biggest disappointment of the holiday movie season.
** out of Four