If Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy had been released last February, it probably would be forgotten by now.
But because of its release date in December, it's appearing on "Best Ten" lists, and Gary Oldman actually is being mentioned as a potential Best Actor candidate.
Timing in movie releasing -- as in spying -- sometimes seems to have undue influence.
Most reviewers -- if they knew it at all -- have long forgotten the 6-hour British tv version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in 1979. It had a splendid, signature performance by Alec Guinness as spy George Smiley.
It was based on the classic novel of espionage by John le Carre in 1974. The British tv version joined the novel as a classic.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was (and is) the convoluted story -- set during the Cold War -- of a "retired" intelligence veteran George Smiley, trying to uncover a "mole" in the hierarchy of British Intelligence. It's an insightful study of intrigue and betrayal.
The latest version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a major tinkering job. It's a fair-to-middlin' film that has received immense critical overrating.
The British tv mini-series is not sacrosanct, but it reflects on the new version. Context matters.
Author le Carre was so impressed with the performance of Guinness as his protagonist in the original Tinker that he later wrote more about Smiley using Guinness as a model.
The new version tinkers with the spy. In fact, it tinkers with the whole story.
Last year about this time, I received a lot of friendly advice or its equivalent, because of my questioning whether the Coen Brothers had spent their time well making True Grit.
At least I don't think Swedish director Tomas Alfredson has the army that the Coen Brothers have.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is directed by Alfredson -- making his first film in English -- with a truncated screenplay by husband and wife team -- Peter Straughan and Bridget O'Connor (a victim of cancer in 2010).
The original British tv version was directed by John Irvin from a screenplay by Arthur Hopcraft. Straughan and O'Connor had to cut a circa 320 minute film down to 120 minutes.
Tinker is now a stream-lined, updated, gussied-up version. The writers appear to make changes just for the sake of making changes.
The great action chase and shooting in a forest is now changed to a cafe. Smiley's helper Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) is now gay, and the climax is during the day instead of at night and has a different, more obvious action.
None of these changes -- and there are several others -- improve the original. If anything, they weaken it.
Perhaps the most major change is in dialogue. In the original, there were many scenes of walking and talking, sitting and talking, talking around a table.
The new version is le Carre for Dummies. Don't talk too much. Simplify the plot. Change the climax.
Alfredson has created an environment of mood, not language. TTSS is full of sounds -- the crunch of toast, the buzz of a bee, teacups, traffic.
Obviously for Alfredson the crunch of toast is preferable to language. In the former version Smiley identifies a quotation by Scott Fitzgerald; the modern writers probably ask, "Scott who?"
They also change the character of George Smiley. In the new version we see Smiley swimming in an outdoor body of water. I'm sorry, but Smiley never exercised or swam. He might have put a drop of water with his whiskey.
John le Carre, now 80, listed as an executive producer, said Oldman is a "tougher" Smiley.
Oldman portrays a Tame Smiley, not Sid Vicious. Guinness was at times taciturn, but when he spoke, it was with a low mellow voice with great enunciation.
Oldman is mostly mute and flat. He lets his eyeglasses -- and light glinting off them -- do his talking. And in a scene when he finally does speak emotionally, the violins intrude. Minimalist acting -- with a lot of music?
Where the Smiley of Guinness was an interesting man with a dangerous, haunting vulnerability, the Smiley of Oldman is an introverted, dull man.
Alex Guinness is human. Gary Oldman, in this role, is a blank slate. But those lenses are something.
The contemporary version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy doesn't seem to give a tinker's damn.
Take a swim, Smiley. But be careful, the writers might drown you.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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