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David Thomson on Films: Tinker, Tailor, Boredom, Why?

“Homeland” ended its first series on December 18 in a ninety-minute episode, as if it had so many loose ends to tie up, and so much to deliver before “the event of the TV season” closed. A couple of months ago, I welcomed the suspense, the plotting, and the human interest of “Homeland,” but I wondered even then if the series would go crazy with its own narrative. That insanity or hysteria has to do with the ever more manic plot devices in a series that may be arguing over its own destiny while it’s still being made, and which is weighing dramatic choices against whether it will be renewed for a second season.

Two days before the last Sunday, I went to see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the Tomas Alfredson movie in theatres, adapted from the John le Carré novel, but offered in the shadow of the 1979 television series that had Alec Guinness as George Smiley. The movie is riveting in the exact sense of the word: We feel nailed to the screen in the impossible task of working out what is going on—let alone why it matters. It’s a little deflating in the fatigue that greets the end of the movie to realize that the story is actually so slight: At MI5, the British “circus” for secret intelligence, there is a Soviet “mole.” We find out who it is. He is disposed of.

Can the praise going to the adapted screenplay (by the late Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan) be for that simplicity, or for the sleight-of-hand that turns the simplicity into a labyrinth, without ever suggesting why we should care? The movie is not prepared to be working for us, or on our behalf. Rather, it takes a supercilious pleasure in being difficult. Chess is often invoked in the course of Tinker Tailor as a model, and it’s a game played under a heavily muffled cloak with the occasional, bloody use of daggers, or guns. Every reviewer says how well the film is acted (by a lot of the usual suspects in English character acting), without coming clean: This is an actors’ exercise in which smothered glances, hushed words, and a stoic acceptance of nastiness assume that they are getting at the real thing—how spying was done in the good old days. I don’t believe it, and further I admire the anguished cry from one of the few interesting or appealing characters, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), that all he wants is to have a real life and stop being one of “You people”—the agents, controls, moles, foxes, and rabbits, whatever, who play the absurd game with such arid, elitist concentration.

This inbred cleverness frightens Tarr and it puts me off. Tinker Tailor is playing a game of keeping us attached while cultivating its own insolent mystery and mystification. The assets of the film go from the cast to the exceptionally dowdy production design (by Maria Djurkovic) and a rare ability to keep us in the dark that may catch the tone of British administration but which drains away the hope of emotional truth. It’s so mannered that being pushed an extra inch or two could easily lead to parody. Gary Oldman is impressive (though never as subtle as Guinness was) but he’s close to gaining entrance to the Monty Python club. So the human context of spying—as played out in the Philby case (and Philby is the model for our mole here)—is never touched upon. The stale, but self-admiring aura of a men’s club is underlined by their being so few women in the show. I heard people coming out of the theatre saying how clever it was to omit George Smiley’s wife, Anne, from the film. But is that cleverness or coldness, and an inadvertent way of explaining why Anne could not stand being with the wretched, neglectful George? He was an emotional mole long before he might have qualified technically.

In all its frenzy, the greatest virtue of “Homeland” was not its intrigue or the questions we wanted answered, but the women in the story and their relationships with the men. Its greatest insight was that the encompassing world of espionage was tailor-made for a brilliant, dangerously bipolar personality like Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), and few things I have seen on a screen lately have been better than Danes at the end of the penultimate episode, cracking up and being taken off to a hospital just as she grasped the inner workings of the terrorist plot that had driven her to her own brink.

Too many things were too hard to believe in the last episode, especially the way Brody’s mind was working—how he accepts the role of terrorist and is then talked down from it by his sixteen-year-old daughter while he’s being protected in some government bunker with many of the most important people in America, and wearing a bomb that could dispose of them all. The twists in Brody (played valiantly by his actor, Damian Lewis) weren’t just scriptwriters on too much coffee. They were the antics of a dramatic series thinking of being renewed. Everything about “Homeland” had to do with suspense and crisis: Something terrible is going to happen, or be narrowly averted. If it is a true narrative with interesting characters, those elements must be honored. They deserve closure. And the show was quite clear about the moral duplicities by which this America had earned a lesson and a rebuke. “Homeland” did a vey good job in saying that terrorists have a point of view—just as often in terror situations solution comes only when that point of view has been addressed.

But if “Homeland” is to carry on, and on (in the way that 24 did—and 24 is the hit behind this show, in terms of production personnel and the theme of mounting desperation at the heart of government) then we need the lead characters to come back. But in a narrative of a high order, attention must be paid to the lives and moral being of the characters, and in that sense Carrie and the extraordinary acting by Danes were hung out to dry. They can all be back for a second series, though, safe if not sound, but that much more compromised as real characters.

There’s a similar problem in Tinker Tailor. A kind of inner logic in the construct whispers, ‘suppose George Smiley is the mole’—Control says he could be, but we never credit that possibility. George is too central, and Oldman’s dry touches are overly respected by the film. If it is all just a game then that possibility should be in play. But Oldman’s Smiley remains a cipher of magisterial underplaying—and those two words don’t quite fit comfortably. By contrast, Claire Danes’ Carrie is unbearably credible, touching, and tragic, fiercely professional and desperately in love (if only Smiley could muster that). She is in agony while the men in the le Carré are just pretending life is gray and hard because those are the club rules.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.