The movie version of John Le Carre’s deeply twisted spy novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy will premiere in the U.S. on December 9th. It’s already garnering early Oscar buzz for Gary Oldman in the Alec Guinness role of George Smiley, and Colin Firth stepping into Ian Richardson‘s polished brogues as Bill Haydon.
Last night, I intended to watch the first installment of the 1979 seven-part BBC series with my husband — starting with “Flushing out the Mole.” It was like eating Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies. We couldn’t consume just one, but we stopped at two so that tonight we could return and hopefully make it last at least until Saturday.
My husband and I are part of a small but proud minority who are addicted to BBC mysteries. Give us Inspector Lewis, Poirot, Miss Marple, the new Sherlock Holmes, Midsomer Murders, Rebus, and we are at peace, sheltered from our earthly cares. The three cats cluster around us on the couch, purring. My hand snakes out to find my husband’s. We do not get up, and down, and answer the phone, or attend to the children’s interruptions, because we’re both riveted to the sofa: ah, BBC mysteries.
We have both read LeCarre’s novel — my husband rereading it recently. And, still, it takes an act of faith to watch the mini-series and trust in Le Carre, aware that we will be baffled anew by the complicated, Cold War intrigue of internal politics within the British secret service and the existence of a mole at the highest echelons of MI6.
And, so, the early response to the Hollywood movie from Focus Feature that it is confusing confounds me. Isn’t that the point? To be sucked into a world where nothing is at it seems, where men in proper ties and overcoats are ultimately as unknowable and surreal as figures in a Magritte landscape? I will see the film at an early press screening the week after next, and report back. But the misdirection and perplexity is precisely the point: this is not James Bond, flamboyant actions at a casino and flashy blonds with funny names. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the antithesis of the children’s nursery rhyme from which it derives its name: this is an intellectual puzzle. Le Carrre is the chessmaster. You may work out bits, you will surely be delighted in the moment, but the ending should come as a kick in the head.
(the entire series is available from Acorn, $49.99; the sequel, Smiley’s People, is also available.)