26 December 2012 | chaos-rampant
This is the sequel to the Tinker Tailor mini-series and last chapter in the Karla Trilogy (they skipped 'schoolboy'). Nothing has fundamentally changed: Smiley is brought out of retirement for one last round of spy games against Karla, his old nemesis. The 'old guard' which he visits (Connie, Esterhase) looks phased and weathered. The moral lines are blurry. The notion is that the world has changed, and doesn't really need these people any more. Smiley will be disowned by the Circus if discovered.
That's all fine. The series is from the great BBC tradition in narrative: the acting is uniformly excellent, it is a clean and riveting piece of fiction. Moreover, it is filmed in that BBC way I adore—transparent camera, natural light and textures.
Which brings me to a point I made in my Tinker Tailor post. I recommend this simply on its storytelling capacity to immerse you. And if you want a glimpse of how 1970's West Europe was like, it is indispensable viewing, absolutely so.
But, it's also a spy film, and a spy film is to my mind one of the best templates for cinematic meditation.
Here's what I mean. You enter a world of some complexity that has machinery and movement, but enter long after the machinery has been set in motion. In the films, you (in the detective's shoes) are looking for this or that narrative device, here it turns out to be a girl, doesn't matter.
In this film, the story really has started long before we enter, but you only learn this as you move through the first couple of episodes—in other words, midway through you suddenly have memories of this world. (one episode is capped by Smiley actually having a flashback)
So, because you have only a partial view of the story (reflected in the film in a crucial bit of evidence being a film strip), and the story shifts as you move through (indeed, you don't know there is a testimony that goes with the strip), this would be like a chess game where each new move shuffles the rules, trying to make sense is not enough. You will have to be still long enough for the thing to reveal itself. You have to spy.
Isn't this nice? You as a viewer will have to be able to see every corner while not being bogged down by detail. Indeed, whereas the bulk of intelligence operatives work as analysts, a good analyst is worth his weight in gold because he does just this: he can flow through a sea of information, salvaging only the crucial bits, the anchors that explain the story.
So, my notion of a good spy film is one that makes watching itself have agency in the world—any film would benefit from this, hence why a template. This is a step-up from Tinker Tailor, where after each episode we were summoned for a recap by the master sleuth, everything smoothed out for us.
Oh, later episodes are forwarded by explanatory monologues and the story, as it turns out, is a personal bet so doesn't threaten an empire, but you have this structure and double identity of the girl at the center, which are fresh and powerful devices. And the sense of place is powerful —Paris, the Hamburg strip club and lake camp, quiet picturesque Bern, Berlin and the simmering anxiety of the Wall.
But the best piece of news is this: there is talk of a sequel to the recent Tinker Tailor film, which is going to be this one (alas for 'Schoolboy').
The film has what both of these don't, though they are otherwise excellent. It has abstraction in the film. It has not just the 'magicians' tricks, but magic that alters how we see. So, I'm hoping they go ahead with it, they will be building—as the first time—from a great primary text.