The Weight of Time

Wednesday night Montréal was clear and cold with the crispness of fresh snow underfoot, and I was supposed to be at home reading Oedipus Rex for my script analysis course. Instead, I bundled up and set out into the cold to watch Tomas Alfredson’s new adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

My friend M. introduced me to George Smiley one evening a few years ago when he insisted that we rent the 1982 BBC adaptation of Smiley’s People. I was captivated. I’d seen and admired Sir Alec Guinness’s work before, but his George Smiley was something entirely new to me: quiet, measured, nearly inscrutable yet utterly compelling. He conveyed more by polishing his glasses than most people can express in a sentence. I was captivated by the series, and the 1979 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that preceded it, and I decided to make a project of familiarizing myself with John Le Carré’s work. To date, said project is woefully incomplete–I’ve only managed to read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, but I’m in for the long haul.

Le Carré, as I’ve come to understand him, is a sort of counterweight to Ian Fleming when it comes to spy fiction. Le Carré’s spies are not brash playboys, but rather unhappy people for whom action is the exception rather than the rule. There is death, to be sure, but as in Greek tragedy it mostly happens offstage; on the occasions when we do witness it, its power is undiminished. Thunderball offers an excellent counterexample.

The burden of time, of waiting, of tedium and repetition weighs heavily on Le Carré’s characters. Alec Leamas, eponymous antihero of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, spends weeks and weeks in London descending into a haze of alcohol and despair, all in the service of the Crown; when his assault of a local greengrocer who refuses him credit gets him briefly imprisoned, one can be forgiven for thinking at first that he simply snapped. He didn’t. It was all part of the plan. This I will say, but no more–read the book, watch the film, it’s got Richard Burton in it and it’s excellent.

Back to the matter at hand. When I learned that a film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was in the works, I was both delighted and apprehensive. The casting seemed too good to be true–Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, John Hurt, Ciarán Hinds–but I couldn’t help wondering how the narrative would work within the confines of a conventional two-hour feature film. I was right to be apprehensive; it doesn’t work very well.

Don’t get me wrong–Alfredson’s film is beautifully shot and packed with excellent character work, as one would expect from its cast. Oldman’s Smiley is different than Sir Alec’s while just as compelling, Tom Hardy is pitch-perfect as Ricky Tarr, Mark Strong makes a commanding Jim Prideaux–I could go on. The problem, as I see it, lies in the film’s brevity, and the poor artistic choices that this brevity inspired.

(Before I go any further, a disclaimer. I’ve never read the source novel, and as I watched the 1979 adaptation over the past winter I’d ask you to kindly forgive any errors of recollection.)

The 1979 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is long–nearly five hours so. It takes its time to introduce and build its characters and to familiarize the viewer with the often bewildering world that they inhabit. The peculiar tradecraft jargon of the Circus and its operatives takes some getting used to, and that’s not even scratching the surface. There are more than a dozen characters who are crucial to the narrative, and any viewer would be lost without being able to recognize them, their roles, and their relationships to each other. The makers of the 1979 adaptation realized this, and approached the task of adapting Le Carré’s work with deliberation and subtlety.

The sequence in which Jim Prideaux (Ian Bannan) travels through Czechoslovakia is a prime example of these qualities. He lingers in a shop. He listens to the conversations of other shoppers, which are not subtitled. He slips into a back room and checks his gun. He spends agonizing minutes waiting at a checkpoint (my memory suggests that there was more than one checkpoint, but even if there wasn’t, it felt like it). By the time he ends up in the Czech forest late at night, the outcome of his journey has already become clear, one increment at a time. The sequence, which I would guess lasts at least fifteen minutes, is a masterful study in suspense.

In Alfredson’s film, this same sequence is compressed into under ten minutes. Instead of Czechoslovakia, Prideaux (Mark Strong) is sent to Budapest. An establishing shot shows children playing as two fighter jets scramble overhead above the grey city skyline. (See, there’s a war on!) Prideaux finds himself sipping tea with his Hungarian contact; their waiter is visibly nervous, so much so that as he leans over the table, a drop of sweat falls onto the white tablecloth. The camera lingers on it for a moment. You already know what is about to happen.

The difference between the two scenes is striking. In the earlier version, there is no foreshadowing to speak of; just time. Lots of time. Watching Jim Prideaux trudge through the streets of Prague, sit glumly at the checkpoint, and drive through the endless rain and darkness, the time weighs on you as it must on him. I’d imagine that if 1979 Jim Prideaux met 2011 Jim Prideaux, he’d trade places in an instant, just to get things over with. 2011 Jim should’ve made his exit as soon as he saw the drop of perspiration hit the tablecloth. I don’t know how he could have missed it.

The contrast here is emblematic of my frustration with the 2011 version. Subtleties of plot and character that were given ample time to grow in my mind while watching the 1979 version are represented instead by weighty signifiers. When Smiley questions Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) and hints that he could be sent back to Eastern Europe to meet his fate if he doesn’t provide the requisite information, he does so on an airfield as a plane lands directly behind them. Why? Is Toby, a man clearly used to living by his wits, so dense that he won’t grasp Smiley’s implication unless he sees the actual plane that they’ll use to carry him away? In the 1979 version, the reality of Smiley’s suggestion dawns on Toby slowly, unmistakably and devastatingly. The 2011 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has no time for any of that, and is all the poorer for it.

In the first episode of the 1979 adaptation, four men enter an office.

First comes Toby Esterhase (Bernard Hepton). Fastidious. Affected. The sort of man who would use a pocket watch and would align his dossier with the edge of the table.

Next, Roy Bland (Terence Rigby). Tie askew. Cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. Stubbed toe, hacking cough. Slaps his papers down on the table every which way. Toby’s back registers disapproval.

Then Percy Alleline (Michael Aldridge). All business. His attitude suggests a sense of self-importance. Brings with him a great deal of small items with which he preoccupies himself.

Last, Bill Hayden (Ian Richardson). Cup of tea and tremendous poise; makes Toby look like an imitator. Doesn’t quite get the door closed, but Toby sees to it. Already, the hierarchies are becoming clear.

Bill stirs his tea. Percy lights his pipe–of course he smokes a pipe. Toby waits expectantly, while it seems that Roy has not looked up the entire time. At last, Percy calls the meeting to order:

“Right. We shall start.”

Two minutes of near silence. Four words. Four perfectly realized characters.

The 1979 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy takes its time, and is all the richer for it.