David Thompson
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September 22, 2011

Comments

Torquil Macneil

I haven't seen the movie yet, but many of these criticisms are wide of the mark if the book is anything to go by. The Mole's explanations for his actions are presented in the book as weak, calculating and self-serving. They are not supposed to have any weight. Smiley notices for example that in his second interview the Mole mentions his 'lifelong' relationship with Karla despite having claimed a much shorter acquaintance in the earlier interview. There just isn't time (or inclination) to pursue.

Equally, the 'moral relativism' has to be seen in the context of the period in which the film is set. The romance and enduring legend of the Circus is, in the main protagonists, seen as tied to a fantasy of empire and John Buchan like derring-do which, after the honorouble fight against the Germans, has come to appear as shabby and dishonest as it really was. The most persuasive psychological explanation for the Mole's treason is that he was born to expect a grand canvass to play out his career on but got stuck in a historical cubby hole. So he chose a bigger side and a more theatrical role.

That's not to say that Le Carre is not sometimes is too mushy in his 'we were just the same as each other' stance which is anoying in Smiley's People and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (where the decency of the East German spy master is offered as the only example of true moral characater for Christ's sake)but I don't think it is a big sin in Tinker Tailor.

David

Torquil,

“The Mole’s explanations for his actions are presented in the book as weak, calculating and self-serving. They are not supposed to have any weight… The most persuasive psychological explanation for the Mole’s treason is that he was born to expect a grand canvas to play out his career on but got stuck in a historical cubby hole. So he chose a bigger side and a more theatrical role.”

I don’t remember the book well enough to comment on it in any detail, but narcissism and psychodrama are perfectly acceptable motives, dramatically. If only they were made clear in the film. The TV version at least implied these motives, if not in much detail. But the film, while excellent in many respects, doesn’t really address the mole’s motives at all. It feels much too glib and nihilistic. It’s a throwaway line and one shouted reply.

[ Added: ]

The motives themselves can be weightless, as you put it, but the fact that they are weightless isn’t without moral and dramatic significance. And I don’t think Alfredson’s film manages to make this point.

Torquil Macneil

All fair points, I just meant to point up that the Mole's given motives are not supposed to be plausible, Smiley knows he is being lied to.

Kevin Donnelly

I always thought the mole's motives were quite complex: they were related to his struggle to understand Britain's changing role; the fact that ruling was his birthright and it had disappeared from underneath him years ago; that he was a showman and an artist who had nothing truly artistic to say; and the traditional upper-class English snobbery regarding the US. All this comes out really well in the BBC Radio version starring Simon Russell Beale.

Agreed that the film seemed to miss a lot of this, and agreed especially that the revelation scene was bizarrely underwhelming.

Also making Peter Guillam gay seemed weird. He's as straight as you can get, surely? And the film already has a powerful gay subtext at its core - Jim Prideaux - so it doesn't need gaying up for the modern audiences. I wonder if it was all part of showing how compromised everyone involved had to be. A way of highlighting the issues of betrayal and privacy.

Torquil Macneil

Yes I'm surprised by the Guillam gay theme. I suspect that the revelation scene was made deliberately not-climactic because that is how it was experienced by the characters in the book. Not sure that was wise, though. Will have to see the film.

I notice that Peter Hitchens in his review gets upset at a string of inaccuracies and I sympathise but I think he has a lot of them wrong. He is very exercised, for example, at the absurdity of Smiley swimming in Hampstead Ponds ('he might as well be doing pilates), but the book-Smiley does swim in the Ponds and, anyway, must have been reasonably physically adept to pass the Sarratt training and to parachute into and work undercover in Germany during the war. It's funny how our prejudices blind us.

Kevin Donnelly

Well, the book's scene could be read either way. The casual way that the narrator identifies the mole..."Scotch. A bloody great big one," said the mole." - could be interpreted in the way the film does.

It's more of an issue that, as charles Crawford says, we learn little about any of the suspects, nor do we care. Toby Esterhase is a fascinating character, who is marginalised to really one scene with a helicopter.

Kevin Donnelly

Sorry, it's not a helicopter, it's a plane.

Sam

"Moral relativism… weak, calculating and self-serving… narcissism and psychodrama… snobbery… anti-Americanising… glib and nihilistic…"

Sounds like half the writers at the Guardian.

Fred

The Guardian predictably downplays the role of ideology and tells us, “One of the great strengths of Le Carré’s fiction is to show how blurred the moral line was between east and west.”

Oh yes, because both sides shot people trying to get to the other side, didn't they?

David

Sam,

“Sounds like half the writers at the Guardian.”

Well, there’s a whiff of irony in the Guardian offering its customers free copies of a story whose villain has a fair amount in common with many of its own staff. And presumably many of its readers.

David

Torquil,

“I notice that Peter Hitchens in his review gets upset at a string of inaccuracies…”

Yes, he does seem determined to be upset about as many details as possible. Though I’m wary of reviewers who let an attachment to the source material get in the way of what works as a film. For instance, the changes in location didn’t offend me at all and, unlike Hitchens, I can’t generate umbrage over the scene in a Wimpy bar. I also liked the Circus’s office Christmas party with Santa-Lenin. I’m not entirely sure what the point of it was, but it was engagingly bizarre and did lift the mood (or at least shift it sideways). Ditto Kathy Burke as the “seriously underphuqued” Connie Sachs. Neither may be faithful with the book, but they did entertain in a grotesque kind of way.

sackcloth and ashes

The tone of the film does seem to reflect Le Carre's early 21st century mindset, rather than that of the 1970s. The Smiley novels were scathing about the state of British intelligence and the atmosphere of national decline, and in the book it is clear that the traitor's motives are very superficial. But I never got the impression that 'Tinker, Tailor' (the book) said 'We're just as bad as the Soviets', and that element is certainly refuted by 'Smiley's People' - at least, it is for anyone who actually read and understood Ostrakova's back story.

I did like the film overall, and thought that the acting was top-notch, but I noted the confusion between the Tarr/Prideaux storylines, and I don't understand why Peter Guillam is hetero in the novel and series, and gay in the film.

On reflection, I'm also not really happy about the fact that Roy Bland was relegated as a bit-player, and the portrayal of Toby Esterhase was a bit disappointing. Esterhase is an opportunist, a rogue and a bit of a charlatan (with his pretensions as an English gentlemen, as conveyed by Bernard Hepton in the series). But the presentation of him as a complete turd and a war criminal was a bit of an injustice. Esterhase is a dark horse, but he's a more compelling and (slightly) sympathetic character in the books.

I've also commented on the the two cheap shots against the Americans. The first shows Alleline handing over intelligence to the CIA Station Chief (at least I presume that's who he is) at the embassy in Grosvenor Square. I cannot see the head of the Service being received in a servile manner by the resident Yank spook, and then dismissed with a wave of the hand. While the 'special relationship' is a cliche, so too is this scene. The idea that 'C' is at the beck and call of a mere CIA station chief doesn't even appear in the novel - and Percy Alleline, for all his flaws, is not the kind of man to grovel to a mid-ranking Yank spook.

The second involves Smiley's account of his meeting with Karla (or Gerstmann, as he knows him them) whilst he's in prison in Delhi. There's a throw-away reference to the 'Americans' having Karla tortured and having his fingernails removed. Point 1 - There is absolutely no way that the Indian police or the IB in the 1950s will accept orders from any US intelligence officer; the only foreign liaison they had was with the British (actually with the Security Liaison Officer from MI5). Point 2 - There is no way that any CIA officer will order the torture of a KGB counterpart, even an 'illegal', because of the possible implications for their own when captured. Point 3 - it's not in the fucking book!

So overall, it's still worth watching as it's head and tails above most of the shit that gets released by Hollywood, but I somehow suspect that Le Carre's current worldview has tainted the end product. Another hour of film would also have fleshed out the lesser characters.

mojo

I'll stick to the old BBC version with Alec Guiness. Ian Richardson makes such a wonderful baddie, as he proved later as Francis Urquhart.

David

sackcloth,

“The tone of the film does seem to reflect Le Carré’s early 21st century mindset, rather than that of the 1970s.”

That could be the nub of it.

Again, my objection isn’t that the mole’s motives are wooly and narcissistic as opposed to sharply ideological. If the mole is essentially a narcissistic wanker, that’s fine. In reality, narcissistic wankerdom would have to be in there somewhere. (Think of Julian Assange and his grandiose, almost comical self-image.) The problem is the film doesn’t really address the mole’s motives at all. There’s almost no acknowledgement that his motives – however disingenuous and self-serving - might be of interest to the audience and dramatically important. “The west has become so ugly” just doesn’t cut it. It leaves a dramatic hole. And a moral one.

Torquil Macneil

I must see this film soon, I wonder if I can find a cinema that would let me bring a four year old.

" I also liked the Circus’s office Christmas party with Santa-Lenin."

This is actually in the book, although only mentioned in passing. Quite a few of Peter Hitchens' complaints come from being very familiar with the story but not having read the text very closely, it seems to me.

David

“I must see this film soon…”

The bits we haven’t grumbled about are generally very good.

sackcloth and ashes

'Quite a few of Peter Hitchens' complaints come from being very familiar with the story but not having read the text very closely, it seems to me'.

I read Christopher Andrew's official history of MI5 a few months back (different service, I know), and one of the things that struck me was the fact that the spooks would have Christmas parties complete with skits/members of staff dressing up/sketches in which the bosses were ridiculed. It's also a common tradition within the British armed forces as well. In this respect, Hitchens is actually wrong in criticising the Santa Lenin scene.

I also echo David's point - the film is still well worth seeing.

Rob

"how blurred the moral line was between east and west".

Said blurring done by the Guardian, the BBC and their fellow left-wing apologists for Communism.

Jonathan

I remember seeing an interview on TV several years ago with a former female SIS officer- wish I could remember her name- during which she was asked about John le Carre. She said he was a very minor functionary and her reply was so dripping with contempt for him that she obviously considered him the next best thing to a traitor.

sackcloth and ashes

@ Jonathan

I lost all respect for Le Carre as a human being when I discovered his stance on the Salman Rushdie affair.

http://www.rjgeib.com/thoughts/burning/le-carre-vs-rushdie.html

As for his writings, he hasn't written a decent novel since 'Single and Single'. I've kept 'The Constant Gardener' as it was a gift from an old girlfriend, and kept 'Our Kind of Traitor' (even though it is unreadable, and runs like an extended 'Private Eye' parody) because it was a Christmas present from family.

No Good Boyo once referred to 1989 as the year in which Le Carre 'began his entertaining descent into student politics' (I quibble with the choice of the word 'entertaining', but there you go):

http://alfanalf.blogspot.com/2009/11/mur-ir-bur.html

For me, a sign of David Cornwell's coming mental trauma can be seen in one of the short stories in 'The Secret Pilgrim' (1990). The hero - 'Ned' - talks about his encounter with a burnt-out Anglo-Dutch operative, Hansen, who had seen too much of the horrors of 'Year Zero' in Cambodia. And naturally (of course) prime responsibility for the genocide which led to 2m Cambodians being slaughtered lies not with the Khmer Rouge, but - you guessed it - the West. Hansen ends up uttering a speech which (in essence) is as follows:

'We have sinned against Asia. The British, the Dutch, the French, and now the Americans. We have sullied the Garden of Eden. May God forgive us. We must get out now'.

The thing is that Hansen is supposed to be this ex-missionary who has an intimate knowledge of South-East Asia's history and culture. And I found it somewhat strange that he could describe his patch as a paradise on earth that knew no war, carnage or exploitation before the Westerners turned up. Is this Hansen's voice, or the voice of his creator?

The Unspeakable In Full Pursuit Of The Unreadable

What is this thing you call spy?

No Good Boyo

Does there come a point when a writer's political idiocy begins to undermine his work? Just to look at our contemporaries,including genre writers - Jose Saramago, Henning Mankell, Michaels Morpurgo and Rosen, Alexei Sayle. All excellent in their fields, all political imbeciles.

sackcloth and ashes

NGB, that's an interesting point. Having read Rosen's 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt' to my niece, I can safely say that I respect him as a children's author (which is not as easy an artistic skill as it sounds) but that his politics are fucked. Alexei Sayle however has done no decent comedy since the late 1980s-early 1990s ('Stuff' was often inspired).

John Le Carre's decline as a writer can be directly related to his political transition after the Cold War. I can't help noticing that his last good novel was 'Single and Single', and that after this he became best mates with John Pilger.

Henry

I loved Iain Banks' novels, including the first few sci-fi ones. But the moment he started trying to make some subtle political point, it turned me right off.

He was forever starting paragraphs saying "The Lieutenant came over the hill and surveyed the battlefield...." then surprising us in the 3rd sentence with "She turned to her soldiers" And all this just to catch us out in our sexist preconceptions*. All very clever, but imaginative writing is hard enough, and immediately becomes stilted and artificial if you try to do this sort of thing.

Characters and dialogue also suffer when you write them according to right-on rules. But we know that, don't we, from multiple BBC dramas where it has been stipulated by God-knows-who that the heroine should do all (or 50%) the karate etc..

* rather like the lateral-thinking problem about a boy and his father being in a car-accident. The boy is wheeled into surgery and a brain-surgeon says "I can't operate - this is my son!"

sackcloth and ashes

@ Henry

I've only ever read one Banks novel ('Consider Phlebas'), but I see your point, particularly regarding the poor calibre of doctrinaire BBC drama (''The Hour' is your answer to 'Mad Men'? Seriously?).

Something similar has happened to Le Carre's novels. The Smiley trilogy made some political points, but they were done in a subtle manner. 'Tinker Tailor' and 'The Honourable Schoolboy' were permeated with the themes of national decline - in the latter, the significance of Martello and Enderby subverting the 'Dolphin' case and robbing Smiley of the just reward from his efforts did not need spelling out. Likewise, 'Smiley's People' showed how the roles had been reversed between Karla and his nemesis, and that in order for Smiley to crush his foe and force his defection he had to callously exploit the one characteristic that made the 'priest' of Moscow Centre a human being; namely, his love for his daughter. Again, the wider implications of that message for the Cold War in general are there to be seen for those who want to see them.

I also admired 'The Little Drummer Girl' because although on balance it was evident that Le Carre sympathised more with the Palestinian side, he made the Israeli characters fully-rounded, complex and human, rather than simplistic anti-Zionist ciphers. Le Carre even gave the most ruthless of the Mossad team - Shimon Litvak - an internal dialogue which made his motives and actions understandable. If there were any villains in this novel, it was the Euro-terrorists who aligned with the Palestinians, who emerged (rightly) as a bunch of spoilt psychopaths and attention-seekers. Even the heroine was exposed as something of a fraud. It was such an intricate and well-written work that I doubt the Le Carre of today could have written it.

In contrast, in the opening pages of 'Our Kind of Traitor' you have cliches thrown at you in the place of a plot. Stock Russian heavy meets stock Guardianista types (he's an academic, she's a lawyer, and dahlings they both marched against the Iraq war etc etc), and somehow they become best mates. Mr Mafia then pledges to spill the beans on the Vory v Zakone and ... and at that point I just gave up.

Henry

Hi Sackcloth,

I thought the national decline a decent subject (Connie Sachs and Bill Haydon mention it in Tinker Taylor I recall)

A diplomat (who worked in the Middle East) many years ago told me he thought the Little Drummer Girl was "Israeli propaganda". I didn't really agree, I think said diplomat was anticipating the current vogue of rather taking the Palestinian side.

The development of Le Carre's writing I find quite interesting. He's big on moral ambiguity, and no doubt it goes back to his father being his early hero and also a crooked con-artist at the same time. But the politics are definitely getting more intrusive

sackcloth and ashes

@ Henry

The comments by the diplomat are interesting, and I get the impression that he/she would have regarded any book that didn't portray the Israelis as brutal child-killers as being somehow sympathetic towards them. The absence of nuance in fictional portrayals of such a complex conflict ('The Promise' as a prime example) is one of the most depressing signs of the institutional idiocy imposed by dogma.

Le Carre is a deeply frustrating character, insofar as his early work still stands on his merits. 'The Spy Who Came in From the Cold' neatly deconstructs the espionage myth, and shows how dirty a business it is. 'The Looking Glass War' sticks in my mind because of the casual manner in which a branch of the British intelligence establishment initiates an operation on the most spurious of grounds, sacrificing one of its operatives (a Polish emigre) in the process. The absolute classic for me is 'A Perfect Spy', which is also semi-autobiographical. Le Carre (Cornwell) is clearly a conflicted man because of his complicated upbringing.

The one thing that stuck in my craw about his recent activism - notably with Iraq - was my memory of reading 'Our Game', which contained an angry denunciation of the supine manner with which the West treated Russian misrule in the North Caucasus. I found myself remembering this novel when he sounded off against the Iraq war, and I ended up wondering exactly what he wanted the USA and UK to do against mass-murderers and tyrants; were we supposed to fight them or just leave them be? Then I realised that - like his buddy Pilger - the actual policy decisions of both countries were irrelevant, and that they were damned no matter what course of action they took. And then that's when the penny dropped, and I realised that just about everything he'd written since 1999 was a pile of shit.

Incidentally, I was struck by this piece in the 'Indie' (or, as it should be known from now on, 'The Plagiarist's Friend') on yet another of David Hare's hackneyed and unwatchable dramas - 'Page Eight'. Hare proudly declaims:

'"I know a little about what's been going on inside MI5 in the last 10 years," he said in an interview, earlier this summer. "Plainly, in the run-up to the Iraq war the intelligence agencies were being asked to come up with evidence which suited the Government's case. To its credit MI5, if I believe what I am told, refused to do that, whereas MI6 (sic) went along with it and came up with all the stuff that went into the dodgy dossiers"'.

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/spies-like-us-new-films-by-david-hare-and-john-le-carr-show-human-side-of-the-intelligence-services-2343225.html

Of course, if Hare had actually learnt anything about MI5 during the decade he'd studied it, he'd have figured out that a domestic security service (i.e. one dealing with internal threats to the UK) might not be able to offer much in the way of guidance on Iraqi policies and military capabilities (which is after all an external issue, and within SIS's remit). But then I'm not sure whether to be more struck by that particular howler, or the manner in which MI5 seems to have changed in the liberal intelligentsia's perception from 'evil secret police' to 'saviours of humanity'. Personally, I'm inclined to blame 'spooks'.

Deogolwulf

Could it be that Mr Crawford does not understand what moral relativism is? Saying that some particular states, nations, or groups are as bad as one another does not by itself express (or "reek of") moral relativism. It is a moral claim --- expressed with no relative qualification --- about some particular states, nations, or groups. Moral relativism, on the other hand, is a doctrine which holds that there is no absolute, universal, or objective moral standard by which to make such a claim, but rather that any claim about good and evil is relative to personally- and culturally-conditioned beliefs, or, in other words, that there are in fact no goods or evils. It is a doctrine prevailing in the West, is at the root of that ideology called liberalism which the West seeks to force upon the rest of the world, and is quite, quite ugly.


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