Tomas Alfredson | 127 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK, France & Germany / English | 15 / R
Shortly after I watched Tinker Tailor, it was announced that they (“they” in this instance being Working Title, I think) are planning a new film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s perennially popular novel Rebecca. This news was greeted (at least on the websites where I read it) with cries in the comments along the lines of, “you can’t remake Hitchcock!” Such is the power of an adaptation to overshadow its original work, at least in some quarters — here in the UK, I’d say the novel is at least as well known as the film, and has already been re-filmed at least twice for TV.
I mention this because Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy elicited a broadly similar reaction, thanks to the beloved 1979 BBC miniseries starring Sir Alec Guinness as quiet but fiercely clever spy George Smiley. How dare anyone re-make that? Well, perhaps because it’s 30 years old (enough time to afford a new perspective, potentially) and was originally a novel — and those are ‘re-made’ all the time. Just ask Pride and Prejudice, or Oliver Twist, or dozens of others.
Personally, I watched the Guinness version just a month or two before I saw the new film, and it unavoidably colours my reaction to it. In that situation, one can only enjoy the new adaptation to an extent, while memories of the previous one crowd in. Distance is required for anything more objective. So changes between TV and film leered out at me, such as a radically different opening mission, and a radically re-arranged structure in places, and a few performances that weren’t up to the same level, and a marginally less effective denouement.
Yet, for all that, the film is excellent. It may not match the TV series in places, in my subjective opinion, but in its own right it shines. Gary Oldman does the impossible and offers a Smiley that is neither an imitation of Guinness’ nor a deliberate counterpoint, but stands apart as an equally proficient rendering of the character. The rest of the cast are equally up to task, with the exception of Kathy Burke, who stands out like a sore thumb in my opinion.
The TV series took about seven hours to tell the same story that this achieves in just over two. Interestingly, without cutting anything major, the film version still feels leisurely paced. It’s also equally as complicated — it’s an intricate plot, and both adaptations assume the viewer will keep up with it. This seems to have caused some viewers problems, particularly in America (anecdotally, at least). It does demand one’s attention, but it is possible to follow. Equally, I had a leg-up from watching and understanding the TV version.
All that said, the four-way mystery about who the villain is never seems much of a mystery. On the one hand, I know the answer; but on the other, I guessed it on TV too. I won’t give anything more away, though the shortened running time means one of the four suspects gets even less screen time than their already-minimal role in the series, and consequently downgraded casting in both instances. It’s an unfortunate side effect of a big-name cast that it helps your audience second-guess plot developments, but it’s equally unavoidable.
Another noteworthy advantage of the film is that it’s gorgeously shot. The TV series actually has its own appeal in this area, with a realism that is quite pleasing. The film occasionally goes grander (look at the depiction of meeting rooms in The Circus for a major example — while the TV series goes for any old room in Whitehall, the film offers stonking soundproof ‘pods’), but it works in its own way.
I must confess, much like my recent drabble reviews, this TV-version-centric review of Tinker Tailor was not what I had in mind, because the film has many praises to sing in its own right. But, in fairness to the blog’s stated mission of seeing a film for the first time and then reviewing it, the Guinness iteration did factor large in my reaction to the film. Now distanced from the series, I look forward to watching Tinker Tailor again with a fairer eye. Yet for all my talk of negative comparisons, I was still mightily impressed — enough to rank it in my top five films I saw in 2012, and enough to give it full marks.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy placed 5th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2012, which can be read in full here.