Sunday, July 10, 2016

Don't Make a Scene: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

The Story:  This week, George Smiley from 2011's extraordinary adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. TTSS had the ghost of the multi-hour mini-series starring Alec Guinness (directed by John Irvin) to contend with.  When it was announced that Peter Morgan had done a draft for a new movie version of Tinker..., there were already raised eyebrows—John Le Carré's thick, intricate, character-driven book is immense and covers a lot of ground, internationally and over time. How could one cram all that into a single two to three hour film?

Director Tomas Alfredson managed to do it, and with scriptwriters Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O'Connor even managed to touch the highlights while adding a quiet depth to the characters, mostly without dialogue, and with a different style than mini-series and book.

Take this scene. In the book, it's a description over dinner; the miniseries does it in flashback. Not here. The dialogue is mostly the same.  But the location and the way it's told is different. The setting is Smiley's HQ for his investigation into double-agent treachery in Britain's secret service; the scene between Smiley and his "player on the other side," Karla, is described and mimed for the benefit of Peter Guillam, solely as a drunken reverie overlain with regret by Smiley. It's haunting, peculiar and is much more effective than the earlier presentation. There, Karla is very real, played silently and cynically by Patrick Stewart (before his career hit warp-speed) and is a fairly powerful presence, still with an air of inscrutability—an unknown quantity.

But in the film version, he's an empty chair, a memory, unseen (as he is throughout the film, his only sign of presence being the lighter that Smiley obsesses over, here—Karla's trophy from their earlier encounter that provides inside information for his plot to infiltrate "The Circus"). Unknowable, not even distinctive enough to remember (although one suspects Smiley may be obfuscating), he is a phantom, much more powerful in the not-knowing...and in his influence.

The Set-Up: Asked by the Home Secretary to look into the matter of a "mole" (a double agent) high up in the ranks of "The Circus" (code name for British Intelligence), George Smiley (Gary Oldman), former No. 2 man under "Control" (John Hurt) is leading an investigation for the traitor in the ranks. His "inside" man is Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), who has just risked exposure stealing documents from the Circus records room.  Under suspicion from "The Gang of Four" heading the Circus (Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, David Dencik), Guillam begins to suspect that their chief source for information, Ricky Tarr (Thomas Hardy) might be lying to them. Smiley, sensing Guillam's doubts, fills him in on some background that might prove useful—and painful—to Guillam in the near-future.


The two men are finishing off a bottle of Scotch. Unusually, Smiley is drunk - a result of the alcohol and the lack of sleep.
Guillam lies on one of the single beds, staring at the PHOTOGRAPHS of the four suspects Smiley has pinned on his chessmen.
SMILEY What for?
PETER GUILLAM I wanted to believe Tarr was lying. (Beat) All this time, thinking I’m fighting a war. It’s a sham. Karla won years ago and we didn’t even know it.
Smiley watches Guillam, estimating how badly all of this is affecting him.
SMILEY (Beat) I met him once. Karla.
SMILEY   Karla.  In fifty-five. 
SMILEY   Moscow Centre was in pieces. Purge after purge. 
SMILEY   Half their Agents were jumping ship and I travelled around signing them up. 
SMILEY   Hundreds of them.
Guillam raises himself up on an elbow, listening.
SMILEY (CONT’D) One of them was calling himself Gerstmann. 
SMILEY He was on his way back to Russia, and we were pretty sure he was going to be executed. 
SMILEY Plane had a twenty-four lay over at Delhi, and that’s how long I had to convince him to come over to us instead of going home to die.
Smiley stares at the room around, projecting his memory of the Delhi cell onto their present surroundings.
SMILEY (CONT’D) Little room...I’m sitting here...he’s sitting there...
He points to an EMPTY CHAIR in front of him.
SMILEY (CONT’D) The Americans have had him tortured.
He holds up his right hand.
SMILEY (CONT’D) No fingernails.
SMILEY It’s incredibly hot. I’m very tired and all I want to do is get this over with and get back home.
SMILEY Things weren’t going well with Ann.
Guillam flinches a little, but Smiley doesn’t notice, lost now in the past.
SMILEY (CONT’D) I give him the usual pitch... Come to the West and we can give you a comfortable life. After questioning. Or you can catch your plane and fly home and be shot, like Bykov, Shur, Muranov...
He stares at the CHAIR as if expecting an answer, and slightly drunkenly Guillam finds himself turning to the CHAIR for a response.
PETER GUILLAM (Beat) What did he say?
Smiley doesn’t answer - STARES AT THE CHAIR - the silence stretching - it’s all becoming a little surreal.
SMILEY (To the chair) Think of your wife. 
SMILEY You have a wife, don’t you? 
SMILEY I brought you some cigarettes, by the way.
He mimes placing cigarettes on an invisible table, between him and the chair.
SMILEY (CONT’D) Use my lighter.
He mimes placing the lighter beside the cigarettes.
SMILEY (CONT’D) “We could arrange for her to join you, we have a lot of stock to trade. If you go back, she’ll be ostracised. Think of her. Think about how much she...”
He breaks off in sudden impatience with himself.
SMILEY (CONT’D) Kept harping on about the damn wife! 
SMILEY Telling him more about me, than... 
SMILEY Should have walked out, of course, but for some seemed important to save this one. (Beat) So I go on. 
“Know you’re a chain-smoker, help yourself,” 
SMILEY “We’re not so very...
SMILEY ...different you and I..”
He makes a vague “Etcetera” gesture, stares at...THE EMPTY CHAIR... something unsettling about it, as if somehow it is acquiring the GHOSTLY PRESENCE OF KARLA.
SMILEY (CONT’D)(To the chair) Look, we’ve both spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another’s systems. 
SMILEY Don’t you think it’s time to recognise there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine?
Silence. Smiley sits back, dropping the game.
SMILEY (CONT’D) Never said a word. 
SMILEY Not one word. 
SMILEY Next morning he got back on his plane, 
SMILEY ...gave the pack of cigarettes back to me, untouched - 
SMILEY ...this was a chain-smoker, 
SMILEY ...mind - and flew off to what he presumed would be his death. 
SMILEY He kept my lighter. 
SMILEY It was a gift - “To George, from Ann. 
SMILEY ..All my love.”
Guillam is still staring at the chair, a little awe-struck.
PETER GUILLAM That was Karla? 
PETER GUILLAM And he flew back to die rather than give in?
SMILEY Yes. (Beat) And that’s how I know he can be beaten. 
SMILEY Because he’s a fanatic. 
SMILEY And the fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.
PETER GUILLAM What did he look like?
SMILEY That’s the thing. (Beat) I can’t remember.
He stands up, crosses to the window, embarrassed by what he has to say next.
SMILEY (CONT’D) After today, Peter... 
SMILEY have to assume they’re watching you. 
SMILEY If there’s anything you need tidied up... 
 SMILEY’s the time.
Guillam stares at him, realising what he’s talking about.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is available on DVD from Universal Home Video.
The same meeting from the BBC mini-series
Karla (a "Pre-card" Patrick Stewart) and Smiley (Alec Guinness)

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