Well, I finally got to see the film I’d awaited for a year, and which opened in Britain in September, and in other parts of this country in December. Thanks to the Nickelodeon for bringing it here (you can still see it there through Thursday).
And the verdict? It was good, very good. You should definitely see it, whether you’ve read the book or not, and whether or not you, like me, own the 1979 TV series on DVD.
Was it as good as that, the Alec Guinness version? No. Still, that leaves a lot of room to be very good indeed. (The series was one of the best things ever made for television.)
The film was slicker, certainly, with more impressive production values. But that’s to be expected. Everything I had read about the film’s effective evocation of mood was true. I don’t know what sort of process the film was run through, but it seemed to have been subjected to something akin to what was done with “Saving Private Ryan.” Only there is a rustiness to the scenes, rather than the greenish cast.
And Gary Oldman is wonderful, as usual. Afterward, my wife was asking where she had seen him before. She couldn’t recall. Was it just that the actor is such a chameleon? Yes, he is (as you can see here and here and here and here and here). Which makes him perfect to portray the forgettable, unremarkable George Smiley. In his own way, perhaps even as good as Guinness.
On the whole, a very good job was done in spite of not having the six hours that the TV series had to do it in.
That said, I have a number of objections, and they are mostly of the pedantic, fanboy sort. They have to do with inexplicable changes in the stories, and the characters — changes that are not excused by the demands of brevity or limitations of the medium. Changes that in some cases unnecessarily complicate the story, even making it less credible.
I’ll warn you now with a SPOILER ALERT, but ask you to return and review my list after you’ve seen the film:
- Why on Earth does Control send Jim Prideaux to Budapest, rather than Czechoslovakia? Why make the alleged contact Hungarian? A totally gratuitous change. No harm, but unnecessary. As I viewed the scenery, I wondered whether it was easier to get establishing shots of Budapest that looked as they did in the 70s. But so what? The action, in the book (and the TV series), took place near a cabin out in the woods. There was NO need for an establishing shot, as the locale was generic. It could have been shot anywhere.
- Why, indeed, was Jim shot in an urban setting? Just so we could be horrified by the unnecessary death of a particularly vulnerable innocent bystander — an incident completely missing from the original story?
- Why did Colin Firth get so little to do in the film? I had assumed that he signed on because the role of Bill Haydon was such a meaty one. Haydon was not only the critical character in the story, he was a particularly charismatic and tragic figure, the hero to a generation of intelligence officers, a flamboyant and brilliant presence, a source of cuttingly ironic remarks, the cynosure of regard by all. And yet, except for a couple of obligatory scenes, he is hardly drawn for the audience at all. (This is one thing that perhaps could be explained by the need for brevity, of course, although it’s an insufficient excuse.)
- Given that there is so little time to explain what must be explained, why is a scene added that does nothing but tell us that one of the characters is gay? A character who, by the way, is not gay — to the extent that one respects the book. (Another key character was bisexual — which is accurately touched upon in the film.) Peter Guillam is perhaps the closest to a “James Bond” type you find in the novel — a relatively uncomplicated tough guy (head of the department of tough guys, Scalphunters) with a penchant for fast cars and beautiful young women (something you see more clearly explicated in later books). Why do this? It advanced the story in no way.
- For that matter, why was Guillam not portrayed as Smiley’s close friend? The first thing we hear him say to George is to address him as “Mr. Smiley.” In the book, Peter takes George out drinking after Smiley is fired. In this film, George’s sacking is portrayed as a long walk out of the building with Control, who was close to no one. Peter is just one of the people who watch him go. This is no minor detail. In the film, you are left to wonder why Peter is the one person still at the Circus whom George trusts. In the book, you knew why. He was like a Watson to George’s Holmes.
- You are particularly left to wonder about that because, in the film, Peter is not that critical to setting the action in motion as he was in the book. And THIS is the biggest unnecessary flaw in the production, one that actually matters. For some bizarre reason, we are asked to believe that a mere phone call from low-level Scalphunter Ricki Tarr to senior bureaucrat Oliver Lacon (one of the few in Whitehall with keys to the secret kingdom) causes Lacon to contact George and launch him on his hunt for the mole. (Lacon hadn’t believed Control when he had alleged the same thing; it is utterly incredible that he would take such extraordinary steps on the word of the mercurial, untrusted Tarr.) We are halfway through the film when Tarr emerges from hiding to tell Smiley his story. This is completely absurd. In the book and series, Tarr contacts his boss, Guillam, who then contacts Lacon (because he is senior enough to do so and be heard), and his detailed story is what convinces Lacon, Guillam and Smiley that there is a mole at the Circus. Without that, there is no credible basis for the investigation that is the plot of this story.
- A side casualty of this strange twist is that what should be the tensest scene in the film is missing something critical. When Percy Alleline calls Guillam on the carpet and accuses him of consorting with Tarr (officially regarded as a defector), Peter lies masterfully in the original. In this film, he doesn’t have to lie, because he has not seen Tarr.
- Yesterday I mentioned that an unlikely actor was chosen to portray Jerry Westerby. Having seen the film, I wonder why the character was even given that name. In the film, they essentially call Sam Collins “Jerry Westerby.” I understand combining characters in movies, but this isn’t a combination; it’s a substitution. The part the character plays in the story is in every detail Sam Collins, and he in no way does or says anything that Westerby did or would have. Strange. Now that they have confused things to this extent, it will be even harder to make a sequel out of the next book in the series, in which Westerby is the title character.
- Then there is all the gratuitous depiction of violence, twisting credibility in order to show blood. Pure Hollywood, I suppose. There’s quite a list, starting with the nursing mother who is accidentally shot in Budapest. Tufty Thesinger is brutally murdered in his office (which is also in the wrong country, by the way — why Istanbul, instead of Lisbon?). So is Boris. Tarr actually sees the brutally beaten Irina carried onto a ship on a stretcher (in the book, he persuaded a witness to tell him of seeing a woman placed on a plane). Irina is shot, shockingly, in front of Jim Prideaux during his interrogation, instead of being eliminated far from anyone’s view in a cell at Dzerzhinsky Square (in the book, Prideaux would never have met Irina, or known she existed). Then there was the implied violence of Toby Esterhase being threatened with immediate extradition — the realization of what he had done should have been enough, as it was in the book and series, to turn him.
- Speaking of violence, there is the completely unnecessary change in how the mole Gerald meets his end. Is it really that much more appealing to movie audiences to see a man killed at long distance with a rifle than to get his neck broken with his killer’s bare hands? I wouldn’t complain, except that it makes the mole’s last-second recognition of his killer (which is important to the arcs of the characters) a little harder to believe.
One tiny, last detail — in the TV series, they at least showed George Smiley living on Bywater Street. In the film, it was somewhere else. Probably no one but me would be bothered by that. And it’s forgivable. Perhaps the neighbors wouldn’t allow it; I don’t know.
But other than all that, it was great. Don’t mind me. Just go see it. In fact, if you are a le Carre fan you must see it; excuses will not be tolerated. I look forward to discussing it with you.