For a slow-burning, adult-oriented feature, the new film by Tomas Alfredson, director of 2009’s Let the Right One In, has been a huge box office success. £20m in takings at the UK box office, plus an extended and wide cinematic release. While reactions from mainstream audiences have been mixed, the film has largely been praised by critics as a successful adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel. Those who have loved it have praised Gary Oldman’s interpretation of George Smiley (Britian’s second favourite spy) as well as the performances of the all-star supporting cast, which includes Colin Firth, John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones and Mark Strong.
With such awesome talent on screen, backed by an exciting director and powerhouse screenwriters (the late Bridget O’ Connor and her husband Peter Straughan), it’s fair to say that I had high expectations of this film. And though I think it has its merits, I was mostly underwhelmed.
There are a few, rather significant problems. Firstly, the narrative failed to engage me – and I didn’t feel anything for the main character, George Smiley. He felt purely functional, a tour guide through a labrynthian plot that suspended its main reveal (the identity of the mole at the very top of British intelligence) without keeping me in suspense. There was nothing personally at stake for him. The film offers little to no insight into his experience as a human being in the situations depicted. He undergoes no change; the inciting incident is poorly developed; and there are no fundamental choices he has to make over the course of the story. To paraphrase, Robert McKee – there is characterisation, but no character. I just did not connect at all. I didn’t like him, I didn’t dislike him.
The second problem with the film is its failure to question the role played by UK intelligence. Smiley is not portrayed as a hero, but as far as the film’s concerned, he’s on the right side; and has every reason to be proud of the legacy he and Control (his former boss played by John Hurt) have left behind. One would have thought that some moral ambiguity would have been called for – would have enhanced the story. But all we’re offered is Smiley’s acknowledgement that the West doesn’t have anything more to offer than the East. Yawn.
I also found the narrative too compressed. Whereas the television adaptation of the novel provided enough space for development of secondary characters (the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, and Spy of the title), this is sorely lacking in the script and finished film. If the core question we’re meant to be concerned with is the identity of the mole, we’re not given nearly enough time with the main contenders to raise our suspicions, or be led and misled down different paths – which is the primary pleasure one gets from suspense thrillers. In this sense, the film and its characters are a victim of their subservience to the plot. Neither are able to shine because of it.
Overall, I felt the piece lacked authenticity. Partly, it was the dialogue, but partly it was the actors’ line readings which at times felt pitched at the level of a bad radio play. This was perhaps the most surprising given the stature of the cast.
Alfredson appears to have been restrained by the big budget he was handling. As if the producers said to him, fine have your muted palate and low light cinematography (incidentally the best thing about the film) but that’s it. His camera movements, framing and blocking of the action are all unexceptional – and don’t live up to the promise he showed with Let the Right One In. Let’s hope this is just a case of him “doing one for them” so he can return to more personal and innovative projects like the one he built his name on.