Sunday, January 15, 2012

Le Carre, Leone and Labyrinths (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Once Upon a Time in the West)

(Warning: Spoilers.)

At last
Thursday night's screening of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West - in glorious 35mm at the IU Cinema - retired Executive Director of Film Preservation (at Paramount) Barry Allen described the structure of the film as "like a labyrinth...a series of concentric circles revolving around Claudia Cardinale's character at the center." That's an intriguing way to put it, and it also could apply to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tomas Alfredson's raved-about new adaptation of John le Carre's classic espionage novel. The films are similar in complexity and employ the power of suggestion rather than overstatement. Leone's narrative, however, shoots outward from Cardinale Central to convey the expansion of modern America across the Old West; Alfredson follows le Carre's plot inward through a deadly thicket of Cold War treachery to the identity of the traitor responsible.

Commanding the investigation from along the periphery is George Smiley (Gary Oldman), whom we learn early on was forced into early retirement along with his boss, Control (John Hurt), following a botched rendezvous in Budapest leaving their operative Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) wounded. The Budapest debacle is one of at least three key flashback sequences woven into the narrative, the tale of Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) and a drunken Christmas party at "the Circus (MI6) being the other two. Ricki, another low-level "scalp-hunter" on the run from both the Brits and Russians, wants to exchange information about the KGB mole in order to help a Soviet spy (Svetlanda Khodchenkova), with whom he's become romantically entangled, defect. Meanwhile, at the Christmas party (reportedly not in le Carre's novel), we gradually become privy to the consequences of an affair on the pair of cuckolded parties.

All of this is even more complicated than it sounds, to where only an arrogant (read: intellectually insecure) viewer would claim that it's a cinch to follow. The original 1979 BBC Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring the gratingly precise diction of Alec Guinness, packed presumably as much of the book's plot that would fit its 5-plus-hours running time; the granular level of detail left many le Carre fans enthralled, but for me if it moved any slower it would have been going backwards. Alfredson's adaptation poses the opposite problem: building a complicated international thriller around glances, suggestions, and inside-baseball lingo. At times the enterprise comes across as Cliffs Notes le Carre, yet on the whole the movie held me. It's a relief to see an adaptation of a novel (the screenplay is by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan) that respects the source material without genuflecting toward it, and trusts the actors (more than that: depends on them) to get the point across. While Oldman leads a stalwart British ensemble, including Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, and Benedict Cumberbatch - half of whom appear almost visibly relieved to have finally graduated from Hogwarts - Alfredson, his DP (Hoyte van Hoytema), production designer (Maria Djurkovic) and art director (Tom Brown) envelope their cast in an atmosphere that not only reminds you of an early 1970s film but looks like it could have been made during the era it depicts. It's a movie that spells out nothing, couching its emotions and its violence until they burst in tandem, like a teardrop falling from a bullet.


Last week I mentioned that I rarely review older, classic films, finding little to say about them that hasn't already been said. But I do want to mention briefly that Once Upon a Time in the West, a movie I'd seen before (several times, on DVD), is simply stunning on the type of big screen for which it was clearly made. I'd expected Ennio Morricone's multilayered score to register strongly in a theater hot-wired for sound, but I hadn't counted on the enhancement of the performances (particularly Jason Robards, whom I'd previously considered the weak link, but whose subtleties come into sharper focus; and Gabriele Ferzetti's invalid railroad baron, whose longing to see the Pacific grows unexpectedly poignant) as well as the increased clarity of the labyrinthine narrative, unusually dense for a Western, each turn of the plot clicking satisfyingly into place. Despite lousy winter weather and a concurring IU home basketball game, the Cinema was almost completely full, and hardly a sound was heard during the three-hour running time. Afterwards we floated out of the theater, oblivious to the cold, a colleague telling me the next day that going to the movies "doesn't get any better than this."

4 comments:

Adam Zanzie said...

The original 1979 BBC Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring the gratingly precise diction of Alec Guinness, packed presumably as much of the book's plot that would fit its 5-plus-hours running time; the granular level of detail left many le Carre fans enthralled, but for me if it moved any slower it would have been going backwards.

You read my mind right there.

I remember in the summer being uber-excited after watching the theatrical trailer for Alfredson's film, and then feeling I needed to prepare for it by watching the miniseries. Then, I watched the miniseries and... fucking hell. I don't even remember how I managed to get through the whole 5-hour thing, but that was not a pleasant experience for me. Maybe it would have helped if the DVD had had English subtitles--then I would have been more inclined to pay attention and follow the plot.

So, now I'm afraid to watch Alfredon's movie. I'm sure it's as fast-paced as you say it is, but I feel like a failure because le Carre's story didn't grab me even as I was watching the miniseries. Have you read the book? I'm giving serious thought to reading it before I see the movie. Some have told me I should just go through with seeing the movie first and *then* the book, but I never like to do it that way. So... it's a bit of a dilemma.

Craig said...

Adam, if you saw the miniseries that recently, then you should have no trouble following the movie. My own memory is faint, though I recalled a few sequences as they played out. (I remembered who the mole was, too.) I'll be curious to see what you think of this one. Matt Seitz compared it to "The Godfather" in the sense that it sets up each scene with implications and lets the viewer deduce what's going on. I agree with that up to a point, although I think "Tinker Tailor" is more inscrutable. A good film, overall, with Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch (damn, it's hard to type that) making the most vivid impressions.

Steven Santos said...

Haven't read the source material nor have seen the original version of "Tinker, Tailor", though I would say the craft of the film made it, by far, the best Le Carre adaptation, the previous ones have all left me cold.

"All of this is even more complicated than it sounds, to where only an arrogant (read: intellectually insecure) viewer would claim that it's a cinch to follow."

This is true to a certain extent, as it took me about the first 30-40 minutes to really catch up with the plot. But, I'm not sure whether it was too complicated or whether I felt certain relationships and characters were given short shrift. How much of that ending would have paid off better if the primary four men under Control were fleshed out a bit? (A terrific actor like Ciarian Hinds really has little to play here.)

And I have mentioned this elsewhere in that I believe that the refusal to reveal one particular relationship until late in the film sort of made the ending fall short a bit. A case where plot trumped emotional payoff. That said, it is still a strong film, due to the craft in both the acting and production.

I take for granted that, outside of major cities, it is hard to see the classics on a screen. I saw "Once Upon a Time" the last day of 2010, but even that was after multiple big screen viewings over the years. It is one of those handful of films that contains, for me, everything that I love about film. Something I would see to simply inspire me to create.

Craig said...

But, I'm not sure whether it was too complicated or whether I felt certain relationships and characters were given short shrift. How much of that ending would have paid off better if the primary four men under Control were fleshed out a bit? (A terrific actor like Ciarian Hinds really has little to play here.)

Both complicated and short shrift, I think. Colin Firth fares best with his character's mix of charm and self-loathing (plus a little more screen time). Other characters and their relationships, like Cumberbatch and Smiley's blink-and-you'll-miss-him beekeeper assistant, go by so fast and obliquely it's hard to tell what we're supposed to take from them.

And I have mentioned this elsewhere in that I believe that the refusal to reveal one particular relationship until late in the film sort of made the ending fall short a bit.

Funny, but that relationship I was actually attuned to immediately, and could follow it through the payoff, which I found satisfying. Not sure how I feel about the coda overall, which has the bounce of a workplace comedy where the hero gets both the job and the girl, but I admire the balls to try it if nothing else. (A great earlier musical cue was the crisply edited "Mr. Wu" sequence.) I was also sort of confused by the scenes between Prideaux and the student, though the bit with the owl was certainly a new one. As you said, the film is a testament to good craftsmanship all around. The decor of the Circus interiors was so right it made me laugh.