There had been other screen Smileys—Rupert Davies gave him a bluff inhumanity in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and James Mason drawled James Masonically and rather ineffectually through Sidney Lumet’s TheDeadly Affair—but Guinness’s became at a stroke the definitive performance. Guinness-as-Smiley was monkish, fastidious, almost prim, bestowing here and there the faint, equivocal benediction of his Smiley smile. He had a doughiness of feature and a plumminess of tone. He moved as if he were wearing three overcoats. In restaurants he looked inexpressibly pained, but if you mentioned his wife his face would register nothing at all. Guinness’s only rival to date for the role has been Simon Russell Beale—the voice of a hooded, magnetic Smiley in a recent series of BBC radio plays.
The new model of Tinker, Tailor—opening in the U.S. in December—is, for me, problematic. Director Tomas Alfredson, previously known for the well-regarded vampire flick Let the Right One In, has reduced the already low pulse of the BBC version to a throb of nearly reptilian thrill-lessness. Which would be fine, except that much of the distinctive le Carré atmosphere has also floated away. Circus HQ, for example, in the novels a warren of pokey corridors with London traffic-grunt coming in through the windows, is rendered by Alfredson as a kind of totalitarian Reading Room, a soaring industrial/cerebral space in which ranks of eavesdroppers and codebreakers clack at their machines, and meetings are conducted in soundproofed cubes. It’s a chillier spy world, with wider gaps between people. The center of gravity provided in the novel by the Establishment, the clubbable Old Boys in their smotheringly furnished rooms—burgundy carpets, burgundy faces, overstuffed men in overstuffed chairs—has gone. Gone too is the heavy fellowship and ghastly heartiness, the endless belaboring of Smiley with the long syllable of his first name: Oh really, George!, George, you must see …, How’s the lovely Ann, George? Now they all communicate in leers of mutual suspicion: a Scandinavian reboot has occurred. Was the Cold War really this cold?
Oldman-as-Smiley, meanwhile, is blanker, harsher-voiced, impenetrable behind the huge reflective panels of his glasses. The wan little smile has become a grimace. Twice we accompany him in the laborious meditation of his early-morning swim in the Thames, watch him pushing pale-shouldered through the tea-colored water—to what end? We cannot possibly guess what he’s thinking. No clue! Smiley’s understatement has been overstated.
It’s very 2011, I suppose, to rub away the interpersonal texture and crank up the anomie. Didn’t the Bond franchise give it a go in 2006’s Casino Royale? Daniel Craig as a harder, icier Bond, hacking his ethically unencumbered way across a borderless post-9/11 globe … To strip down or minimalize le Carré, however, is to sacrifice the almost Tolkienesque grain and depth of his created world: the decades-long backstory, the lingo, the arcana, the liturgical repetitions of names and functions. Did you know that it was John le Carré who introduced the word mole (for “double agent”) into English? Also honey trap? He has enriched the language itself—a claim not even the most devoted Bondian, not Kingsley Amis himself, could make for Ian Fleming.