Belatedly I come across Peter Hitchens’s 2011 takedown on the then-new movie version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and it is a digressive, sometimes hilarious joy to read. Link here.
I’ve seen this film version many times—nearly as many times as I’ve watched the 1979 BBC series—and was always perplexed by the glorious miscasting of most characters, not to mention the complete reconceiving of such figures as Jerry Westerby, Peter Guillam (the film makes him a homosexual who wears a fringe and is played by an embarrassed-looking Benedict Cumberbatch), and of course George Smiley himself (Gary Oldman, who swims in ponds with his heavy eyeglasses on, which the relentlessly sedentary book Smiley and Alec Guinness portrayal would never do).
It didn’t occur to me till now that I was wasn’t the only one confused. There was outrage all over when the film came out.
And a lot of high-dudgeon humor. My favorite bit in the Hitchens review is where he tells you what Percy Alleline should be like, and is like in the book and TV series—versus the mutant-alien version we get in the film version:
Percy Alleline, the smooth and pompous Secret Service Chief, cruises his way through Whitehall, associating with ‘golfers and Conservatives’, speaking orotundly of ‘My brother in Christ, the Chief of Naval Intelligence’ (to give a sample of his speech).
He simply has to be tall, pin-striped and slightly well-padded, with the trace of an Edinburgh accent. Instead he is a short ginger baldie who sounds and looks as if he has recently given up being a Glasgow bus conductor.
Hitchens also tells us that Roger Lewis in the Times had just done a similar excoriation (though a much shorter one). I see the paywall will defeat most people, so I’ll do the Christian thing here and reproduce the 2011 Lewis review in its entirety. Nyaah nyaah.
Am I the stupidest man in Britain ? I ask this because every critic has been lavishing high praise on the new film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. No one I’ve seen has given it less than five stars. The word “masterpiece” has been bandied about.
I thought it was absolutely terrible. As adapted, the story was something I couldn’t follow at all, and I’ve read John le Carré’s suspenseful novel of 1974 three times with intense enjoyment. Shot as if by candlelight, it was hard to make out the characters in the gloom. The plot was impenetrable, and given a vaguely gay slant — chaps smiling ruefully at other chaps is what it now seemed to come down to. The mood was boring in the extreme — the climax was Gary Oldman eating a Trebor mint.
The chief problem, for me at any rate, is that I am a besotted fan of the original Alec Guinness version for the BBC thirty years ago. I watch the DVD all the time. I even corresponded with David Cornwell — John le Carré to you — who told me that Bill Haydon was in part based on Anthony Blunt, hence the significance of the Corot painting he gives to Lady Anne. Blunt, however, with his immunity from prosecution deal, didn’t die until 1983; so back in the Seventies, to avoid legal entanglements, Haydon was instead said to have been inspired by Kim Philby.
Towering above everyone was the enigmatic Sir Alec Guinness as George Smiley. It was perhaps the best performance he ever gave, because it was a distillation of his technique as an actor. Ian Richardson told me that Guinness spent ages rehearsing how best to take off his glasses and give them a polish, how to tie up his shoelaces or tug at his earlobe. The more banal the gesture, the more riveting Guinness became — his apparent blankness suffused with regret, disappointment, rage and forbearance.
Oldman conveys none of this. I always have trouble with him as an actor because he looks as if he wants to bite people in the neck. His Smiley is sepulchral, a dead spot on the screen. His face is creased and lined and covered in chalk. His hair is a streaky grey. He is jerky and wiry, where Guinness sort of undulated. His voice, however, is an impersonation of Guinness’s.
No doubt the producers of the new version are cock-a-hoop and are busily planning the sequel, Smiley’s People. The only way they’d get me to see it is if they cast Hale and Pace. I’m not joking. I saw Hale and Pace in a thriller recently in Eastbourne and they were brilliant.