John le Carré
Apologies for the unexpected hiatus of Taking The Short View over the last month and a half. The simple truth is there’s been a strange dearth of things of late that have inspired me to write reviews, despite the start of a brand new season of television shows.
But let’s rectify the situation and get things back on track with a review of a film released earlier this year and now available on DVD. It’s an adaptation of a John Le Carré novel, following in the footsteps of other recent films based on the authors work such as 2011’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and 2014’s A Most Wanted Man, not to mention the phenomenally successful television mini-series of The Night Manager.
Our Kind Of Traitor starts off with husband and wife Perry and Gail McKendrick (Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris) taking a holiday in Marrakech seeking to repair their troubled marriage. Instead they get caught in the orbit of the flamboyant Dima (Stellan Skarsgård) who is a money man for the Russian Mafia who now fears for his life and that of his family. He asks Perry to take a memory stick back to London to hand over to British intelligence represented by Hector (Damian Lewis) and Luke (Khalid Abdalla), but it doesn’t stop there and the McKendricks find themselves getting sucked deeper and deeper into a deadly game of undercover work. Read the rest of this entry »
Contains plot details for episode one.
John le Carré’s stories aren’t so much examples of spy thrillers as they are a genre entirely unto themselves. You know exactly what you’re going to get from a le Carré novel, and it has almost nothing in common with James Bond.
Le Carré’s stories are small, quiet and subtle. They’re about big, important and even world-changing themes and events, but they play out in the shadows of quiet out-of-the-way places. Everything of importance takes place under the surface so that the actual dialogue is very rarely a clue as to what’s going on, tending to the oblique and bland or even often downright deceptive. Instead we have to intuit the truth from a stray glance here, a nervous pause there, perhaps a significant exchange of looks or a puzzled frown. Everything is very precise, everything surely means something even if you don’t know what exactly.
In a screen adaptation of a Le Carré novel, that means that even the choice of location, how a set is dressed or lit, what a character is wearing, how long the director lingers on a particular shot and when the editor opts to cut away are all equally a part of this unspoken orchestration. You have to pay attention to everything because literally anything might be hugely significant in some way; but equally, you might end up getting drawn into a dead end or a trap. It’s enough to make you quickly fall into the same sense of unease, dread, suspicion and paranoia which is the essence of the world that all le Carré’s characters inhabit.
The level of chilly introspective precision required for a le Carré story is not for everyone. You’ll almost certainly know whether le Carré is your sort of thing or not; and by extension you probably also already know how you will feel about the BBC’s high-budget, high-profile adaptation of The Night Manager whether or not you’ve actually seen it yet. It’s every bit as good as a le Carré fan could possibly hope for; but at the same time, that faithful adherence to the le Carré style will not be for everyone and especially not for those who need their spy fiction to be a little less glacial and reserved. Read the rest of this entry »
The memory of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy looms heavy over this new spy thriller set in MI5 during the early 1970s, originally shown last November by BBC America. And by that, I mean specifically it’s the presence of the 2011 feature film directed by Tomas Alfredson starring Gary Oldman that we feel breathing over our shoulder rather than the original John le Carré novel or the acclaimed BBC mini-series starring Sir Alec Guinness.
The Game follows the film’s mise-en-scène so closely that it almost feels the one was an unofficial pilot for the other, much as Gosford Park was a de facto try-out for Downton Abbey and The American President similarly an early go at the first episode of The West Wing. But whereas those two prior examples had strong connective tissue (Julian Fellowes created both Gosford and Downton, and Aaron Sorkin was responsible for both American President and West Wing) there is no such link between Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Game,: the latter is created and written by Toby Whithouse, who has jumped genres from his normal home amidst cult outings including Doctor Who, Torchwood and of course his own creation Being Human. Read the rest of this entry »
There is certainly a huge amount to admire in this new big screen adaptation of John Le Carré’s seminal espionage story.
From the stunning production design with its immaculate attention to detail (even down to the vintage packet of Trebor Mints Smiley toys with while awaiting his prey), the way it takes its time to use that detail to build character and story, the uniformly brilliant performances by a superb A-list cast (including Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, Kathy Burke, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch) and a precision screenplay that manages to condense down a lengthy original book to a manageable two hour film, extracting a rare clarity of plot and theme without losing any of the complexity and intelligence of the source material, it’s hard to see how this film could have been bettered.
Where there are changes and alterations to the original, they’re invariably for the better: the ambushing of Jim Prideaux becomes a nailbiting set piece in a café, and the film improves immeasurably on the BBC TV series of the 1970s by reducing the Ricki Tarr story to its barest essentials (whereas it was previously a lengthy distraction, practically a separate novella dropped into the original.) The Christmas party addition is also inspired, bringing all the characters together in one place and under different circumstances to better throw light on subsequent events.
But for all the admiration I have for this film, I wish I liked it a little more. Instead it’s rather like looking at a pristine diamond: one appreciates the perfection of the stone and the craftsmanship, but it’s still rather cold and icy. I had a not dissimilar reaction to director Tomas Alfredson’s previous acknowledged classic, Let the Right One In.
In some ways the lack of a true passion toward the film is inevitable and perhaps even intentional, given that the film is set in the deeply disillusioned 70s and deals with a world in which lovers, friends, colleagues – even one’s employer and country – are routinely betrayed, and the only defence anyone has is to emotionally shut down. Certainly that’s true of Smiley, who is intended in the book as impassive and almost a ‘blank slate’. The film’s most powerful moments are when this icy veneer cracks – such as the spectacular look of pure love that Smiley tries but fails to suppress while looking at his wife at the office party, bookended by the abject look of despair later when he realises her betrayal. Or the look shared between the “inseperables”, Hayden and Prideaux; or the heart-rending moment when Peter Guillam (Cumberbatch in one of the film’s best turns) has to give up the person he loves in the aftermath of one of the film’s most nerve-wracking moments.
Tom Hardy is another one of the stand-out performers here – his rough, uncouth Rikki Tarr successfully blending the lout with the charmer, the streetwise thug co-existing with the cunning intelligence operative in a way that Hywel Bennett in the BBC version never did. But there are set-piece moments for all the stars who get their chance to shine, save for an oddly under-utilised Hinds whose part seems to have been reduced in the edit to little more than “looking suspicious.”
As for Oldman – it’s hard to think of another movie star who would be so willing or so able to play a part that requires him to do very little for much of the time except blend into the background and disappear for much of the time. Nonetheless he still gets more meat to sink his teeth into than did Alec Guinness (as good as Oldman is, Sir Alec’s spirit hangs heavy over the role to this day) who took ‘inscrutable’ to a whole new level. However, for my money the scene where Oldman’s Smiley gets lost in the memory of meeting Russian spymaster Karla and starts reenacting it for Guillam is one of those moments that is an undeniable coup de theatre but not entirely successful or in line with the character or the film’s otherwise unflashy nature.
Otherwise the ‘star’ of the film is how it looks – and feels, and smells, as the cigarette smoke practically pours off the screen. It stylishly recreates the period in a way that ironically the BBC version never could – mainly because that was filmed in the 70s in which the story is set. It therefore had no concept of the world outside the window being a ‘period’ and the result is just filmed in a realistic documentary style. In the film, the evocation of the period is powerful and flawless – save for the curious use of a very old George Formby song that appears to be purely a directorial conceit even while it breaks the meticulously created mise en scene established elsewhere. It’s a small, irrelevant flaw; but in many ways, it’s that flaw that gives the film a bit of personality and character outside its icy perfection.
To finish, an example of the screenplay’s lovely sense of structure: it begins with Smiley and his boss, friend and mentor Control leaving the MI6 building in disgrace, watched by everyone in the Service. Two hours later, the ending eloquently mirrors that sequence: and the sense of justice having been done and good things possible at last for the right people gives a rare surge of upbeat optimism that gives a surprising emotional payoff after all.