Tinker Tailor: Dull, dark and lost on England
There is an unwritten rule of cinema and TV direction. It goes something like this: if you are making a period picture or TV series then you must settle on a tone.So, the success of Mad Men is only partly about it’s plot. What hooks people is the evocation of America in the early sixties. Boardwalk Empire is only partly about the characters who inhabit Atlantic City between the two world wars. The real point of the show is the manner in which it recreates the America of the prohibition era. Even with Hindi films, directors feel a desire to caricature periods. The Dirty Picture takes a few familiar elements of the 1980s and then caricatures them and distorts them beyond recognition. Some directors can do this more successfully. Farah Khan made no great claims for authenticity but Om Shanti Om captured the Bombay of the 1970’s much better than anything that Milan Luthria has ever made.
One of the problems with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the new adaptation of the bestselling thriller, is that the director tries too hard to create a tone for the period. The book came out in 1974 and was turned into a BBC TV Series in 1979.
In 1979, directors did not feel that they needed to evoke a sense of period to tell a story that was only five years old. So, the TV version concentrated on the plot and the characterisation and treated the environment in a matter of fact manner. But the director of the TV version had 350 minutes to let events unfold. The director of the movie has only 130 or so minutes. So, there is a certain economy to the plotting. The author John LeCarre says that the script writers have tried to maintain the essence of his book. “It is like turning a whole cow into a stock cube,” he has explained.
I have no problems with the script of Tinker Tailor though I have to say that unless you have read the book or watched very closely you may miss some of the nuances of the plot. The end will certainly seem too abrupt and much too jarring.
My problem is with the director’s efforts at evoking a sense of period. While the TV show was made by Brits for an audience of Brits, the movie is the work of a Scandinavian director making a picture for an international audience. So he has no real feel for England in the Seventies. And he is working on the assumption that his audience will be as clueless. The world of Tinker Tailor is one of rain and bleakness. England is portrayed as a dark, miserable place and everything has a slightly down at heel air about it. When the bleakness cannot be conveyed in any other way, the film relies on lighting that is so dark that you have to squint at the screen to find out what is happening.
I can live with a self conscious sense of period. I can live also with shots that are needlessly dark and moody. I can even live with the sparseness of dialogue that characterises much of the film. (perhaps England was so poor in the Seventies that they could not afford conversation.)
But what upset me when I saw the film last week was that the director’s determination to evoke a sense of period had robbed the story of the interplay between the characters which is the hallmark of the original novel and of the TV series. Some of Britain’s best actors are in the movie, including Gary Oldman who takes on the role that Alec Guiness created and struggles manfully with the ghost of his predecessor. There is also Toby Jones who plays the new chief of the Secret Service like Truman Copote with a Scottish accent. And John Hurt camps it up as Control, the original boss of the service. Colin Firth is entirely wasted as what should be the most pivotal character in the story.
Regular readers of the blog will know that I have been looking forward to this film ever since it was first released in the UK some months ago. I have to say that I am enough of a fan to see any movie based on Le Carre’s George Smilely Novels, no matter how good or bad.
And this one isn’t bad. It’s just a little dull, slightly confusing and needlessly bleak. The Smiley of the books was described as the anti-Bond and so it is appropriate that this should be a serious film. What it should not be however is a Scandinavian art film made by a man with no feel for the England of that period.
But, sadly, that’s what we have ended up with.