Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Director: Tomas Alfredson
Writer: Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan, John Le Carré (novel)
Year: 2011
Cast: Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch

★★★★★

On the face of it, John Le Carré’s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, makes for a very difficult adaptation. Set in the 1970s, it’s a complex, slow-burner of a spy thriller, with little action and a plot that hinges on subtle realisation rather than dramatic climax. The formula works perfectly in the novel and, actually, in the film itself. It is remarkably faithful in both plot and style. Tomas Alfredson, best known for his coming-of-age vampire drama Let the Right One In, was perhaps not the obvious choice to direct a big British spy film, but he is apparently a master at  building an atmosphere in any environment. He meticulously recreates the shadowy world of Le Carré’s novel and uses the camera to instil that sense of conspiracy necessary for the film’s success.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy opens with Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) on an assignment in Budapest, designed to identify a mole believed to be operating at the very top of the intelligence service. It goes badly wrong; Prideaux is shot, assumed dead, and the identity of the mole remains in the dark. There are also repercussions for the intelligence service as Control (John Hurt) and George Smiley (Gary Oldman) are forced out of their jobs, and a new order, headed by Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), takes over, using the political capital acquired from their too-good-to-be-true source of Soviet intelligence, Operation Witchcraft. However, rumours of the mole persist, and Smiley is called out of retirement to discover its identity and the truth behind what happened in Belgrade.

No need to tinker: Le Carré’s original story is just as gripping on the big screen.

After the opening sequence, the most conventional of the film, it becomes difficult to follow. Lots of characters are introduced, the pace is slow and nothing much happens for a while. It appears to be style over substance, relying on a strong aesthetic to keep you interested. Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) is introduced at just the right moment and, from then on, it starts to reel you in. Tarr’s back story is superbly done, giving Oldman and Hardy an opportunity to play off against each other, and the retrospective action provides genuine intrigue and a welcome change of scene. Oldman is wonderful throughout, initially playing Smiley as a world-weary spy in retirement, but, like his character, really comes into his own when given something to get his teeth into. The plot gets closer, more personal, and it is then that he comes to life. He barely moves but quietly dominates every scene, an old master among young prodigies in more ways than one.

By the end, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is gripping. The multiple layers of the plot come together to clarify the overall picture, and the little details begin to make sense. There is no need to introduce any genuine action, as the nuanced drama becomes extremely effective, enhanced by the superb performances and Alfredson’s direction. It has been described as overly complicated, and perhaps it does help to have read the book, but its complexity is a virtue. Once it engages you, it is as intense as any genuine thriller.

The Orphanage (El orfanato)

Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Writer: Sergio G. Sánchez
Year: 2007
Cast: Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Príncep

★★★☆☆

The Orphanage was produced by Guillermo del Toro and is director Juan Antonio Bayona’s first feature film. Thematically, it recalls del Toro’s own work, combining elements of childhood fantasy with material trauma. It is set in an unlikely orphanage, a grand old house complete with a stretch of immaculate beach, a disused lighthouse and a dark, mysterious cave. The central character, Laura (Belén Rueda), lived there as a girl, and has returned as an adult, along with her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and adopted son, Simón (Roger Príncep), to reopen it.

Ostensibly, The Orphanage is a ghost story. Simón, known for having imaginary friends, begins to play with orphaned ghosts from the past, leading them back into the house with a trail of seashells. The ghosts then take something precious from Simón, a set of coins, and lead him on a treasure hunt to find them, as well as to discover a secret that his parents have been keeping from him. The treasure hunt is the signature of the ghosts, a combination of malevolence and innocent play.

The Orphanage’s ghostly children look sinister, but how much substance do they have?

Starting with an unsettling scene, in which a group of handicapped orphans are welcomed to the house with a masquerade party, the ghosts become a more practical threat. They attack Laura and lock her in the bathroom, while Simón disappears as if into the air. Everything is set up perfectly, but, after this, the film begins to lose its way.

Briefly, it moves out of the orphanage, which is a misjudgement. The setting was never claustrophobic per se, but its removed atmosphere was vital to the film’s effect. An important plot development is made, which reveals the orphanage’s dark history, but this could perhaps have been made differently. There is also a scene in which a medium explores the building, which again is not at all bad, but is not entirely consistent with the rest of the film.

However, the main issue I have with The Orphanage is that, in the end, it shies away from being a ghost story at all, instead going down the route of psychological misdirection. This might have worked if the ghost storyline had been less effectively set up, or had an element of doubt. But the ghost story is what makes the film effective and doing away with it destroys the illusion. Taking the narrative as a embodiment of Laura’s psychological deterioration complicates rather than clarifies matters, and leaves the plot open to all kinds of questions. In my mind, the plot that is eventually implied makes very little sense at all. It is also detrimental to the emotional core of the film.

The Orphanage is at its best when at its most dramatic. It is a dark and atmospheric film, which makes good use of the setting and the childish imagination as a source of suspense. But, it falters towards the end, and ultimately becomes a frustrating experience, which should have been more fulfilling.

Rob Dickie