Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The Game S1 E1 (BBC 2)

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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.

game-picThe 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 »

A quick top ten of 2011

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Everyone else is doing one of these Top Ten “best of” things, so why shouldn’t I? In fact the blog feels positively underdressed without one.

So here goes, the best of 2011 as seen in the pages of Taking The Short View:

10. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

A real treat for lovers of classic old silent movies, this new Blu-ray release contains four different versions of the quite brilliant Lon Chaney masterpiece that inspired the current musical production in several ways. (Fans of this period of cinema might also like to take a read of my Hallowe’en review of the original Nosferatu German expressionist film from 1922.)

9. The Shadow Line

In the end, this thriller mini-series couldn’t quite sustain the quality all the way through to the end, but it had some magic moments including a bravura seven-minute opening sequence beginning with an abstract overhead vantage point as two policemen with flash lights investigate a corpse shot dead in a car in the middle of nowhere. Stephen Rea’s character of Gatehouse was compelling and Rafe Spall stole a whole bunch of scenes with his giggling, Joker-eseque menace.

8. Watercolours

In terms of shows that I’ve seen at the Tate this year, this was probably the most successful. A very well put together exhibition which really demonstrated the history of watercolours down the ages, and the wide variety of techniques that have led to a huge diversity of results with the medium.

7. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

An excellent re-imagining of the classic espionage story that was soaked in 70s atmosphere and even managed to escape the long shadow cast by the superb BBC adaptation starring Alec Guinness. Gary Oldman was flawless as Smiley, and among an all-star cast it also proved how stand-out Benedict Cumberbatch is these days, as he had one of the most gripping sequences in the entire film.

6. Super 8

If you’re the right age and happened to be growing up in the 70s just as the best Steven Spielberg movies were being released, then this wonderful movie will transport you right back to your childhood. Intelligent writing that puts the emotions and experiences of the young lead characters ahead of flashy monster FX (but equally doesn’t stint on those when the time comes either) this was a throwback to the very highest quality film making.

5. Doctor Who – The Doctor’s Wife

I’ve had my doubts and reservations about this latest series of Doctor Who even as I’ve faithfully reviewed every one of the year’s episodes. But when it came to this Neil Gaiman-scripted episode and also “The Girl Who Waited” I have nothing but praise: wonderful stuff, some of the best work in the series’ long and illustrious history.

4. The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall

I’d dismissed this as a bit of an shallow money-making stunt when I heard about it, but one viewing of the Blu-ray left me in awe of the quality of the production and what they were able to achieve staging this in a less-than-ideal venue for such an ambitious theatrical production. The performances are exceptional, and for any Phantom fan wanting a recording of the stage production this is the best there is.

3. The Shadow Over Innsmouth

A gripping and highly atmospheric audio adaptation of the HP Lovecraft story that was at times genuinely unnerving despite being “just” a one-man reading of the text and not a full-cast adaptation. It even managed to surpass the same production team’s excellent version of “At The Mountains of Madness” from 2010. Don’t overlook the same team’s “Tales of Max Carrados” about the turn of the century blind detective, either.

2. Senna

This brilliantly put-together documentary about the life and career and tragic death of the F1 racing legend had me struggling to maintain my composure when I left the cinema and not burst into tears. An extraordinary achievement in film making.

1. Forbrydelsen/The Killing

Without doubt the highlight of the year, and one that I very nearly talked myself of watching at the very start. Absolutely stellar quality, and a lead character and performance of the very highest quality together with engrossing storylines that grab you by the throat and won’t let go until after the final credits roll. Reviewed in this blog several times, especially episodes 17-18 of series 1 and episodes 9-10 of season 2.

That’s it – just time to thank everyone who has been to visit Taking the Short View in 2011 and wish you all a very Happy New Year indeed for 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

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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.