"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Holiday Movies II: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Let's just say it's rare for me to get really drawn into a series of books the way I might with a TV show or a series of films. But boy am I hooked on John le Carré's Karla trilogy. I started the first book, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," in anticipation of seeing the new film adaptation, but the book itself has turned out to be a wonder. While I gush about it, here's some stills from the movie, which showcases some of the best British actors around lurking in fabulously atmospheric decors.

Le Carré is probably the first author I've read (with the possible exception of Ian McEwan) who truly manages to blend aesthetics with entertainment. I don't usually go in for plot-driven books because they're usually not very well written, and I'm a terrible snob. I'm more of a book-where-nothing-actually-happens kind of person - "To the Lighthouse," "At Swim-Two-Birds," etc. Recently, though, I've come to suspect that a good handling of plot, like a good sense of comedy, is the true mark of a great writer. I'm personally no good at plotting, but I'd give anything to be able to craft a story like le Carré.

Not only is the story of George Smiley and his end-of-career obsession with the Russian Karla utterly gripping, it is told in the most elegant way imaginable. Le Carré is a master of point of view - every so often, he'll take the perspective of a marginal character, an outsider to the action, who no writer in their right mind would trust with telling the story, but who ends up shedding exactly the right funny or human light on the dark world of spying.

He's also brilliant at balancing high stakes spy missions with utterly banal details about how the characters actually accomplish their jobs and what thoughts are going through their mind as they execute the most harrowing operations.

I was a bit too close to the book to accurately judge the movie, and they definitely changed a lot in adapting from book to film, which makes it hard not to sit through the movie thinking, But it wasn't that way in the book! I can say for sure, though, that they took an extremely bookish book (full of ponderings and inner monologues) and made it into an extremely filmic film. Some of the scenes, like the one above, where absolutely stunning as constructions of sound and image. The tension at certain points was incredible, even to someone who knew exactly what was going to happen.

I was also very impressed by the art directors' work in evoking the alternately drab and garish atmosphere of the era. From the interiors of Circus headquarters to the streets of Budapest, everything was filled with wonderful detail.

Finally, I loved some of the costuming details, particularly Bill Haydon and Ricki Tarr's coats - one pictured above, the other was a caramel-colored corduroy that just perfectly expressed Haydon and set him apart from the rest of the men in suits. His spectacles were wonderful too. Not to mention himself, played to perfection by Colin Firth, who I now believe is the acting equivalent of a superhero and can literally do anything.

One of the best additions (not in the book at all but almost should have been it was so good) was the MI-6 holiday party scene. It was perfectly in keeping with le Carré's genius of getting at the banal of super-secret spy lives. Who would have thunk that secret agents had Christmas parties? But of course they manage to imbue it with all the tensions and passions of the most perilous of secret missions.

I'm not sure they'll adapt any more of the trilogy, and I hope they won't, especially since they horrendously miscast Jerry Westerby (the hero of the second book, "The Honorable Schoolboy"), but in the meantime, I'm moving on to "Smiley's People," the final chapter, before going on to devour the rest of le Carré's blessedly extensive oeuvre.

1 comment:

  1. But oh mon dieu that movie was confusing! And sad! Oh belles! Je ne comprends pas!