Wednesday 7 September 2011

Smiley culture

It's official. The world has had enough of the war on terror and the war in Libya: everyone's nostalgic for the Cold War. Well, judging by the ubiquity of George Smiley and the new film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in the media and online, the Cold War is back, back, back. It's like it's never gone. This most famous of Cold War spy thrillers is even being referred to on the comment pages of our national newspapers, a sure sign that a cultural phenomenon is emerging.

Gary Oldman's portrayal of the taciturn and morally ambiguous spy-hunter is everywhere this week as reviewers return from the screening sessions for the new movie and file their copy. And they're in universal agreement: the film's a cracker. Numerous reviews all point to Oldman's George Smiley as worthy of an Oscar. Derek Malcolm in the Evening Standard highlights Oldman's portrayal as more "introspective and less knowable" than Guinness' version; Time Out's Dave Calhoun's picks out the film's seventies verisimilitude; The Guardian's Xan Brooks talks of a director - Tomas Alfredson - who's more fascinated with the detail than the denouement, the journey rather than the destination; the Daily Telegraph's David Gritten writes that the film is simply a "triumph".

Consequently, lips are being licked by every spy fiction fan across the globe. Pub bores will also soon start regaling those who'll listen with their opinion that "it won't be as good as Alec Guiness's version". Judging from the new trailers, pub bores up and down the land will have to be buying a few pints by way of apology It looks very, very good.

What comes across from the trailers and the reviews is the pace. Or lack thereof. This is a slow - apparently, at times, slightly ponderous movie. It is the antithesis of the fast-paced, whizz bang crash of the 007 and Bourne spy movies which, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, have largely been Hollywood's staple of this genre. Here is a film which, in the way it apparently winds up the tension and the uncertainty, successfully mirrors the book it portrays.

All the reviews refer to Guinness and the seminal BBC TV series; I've yet to find a review that doesn't. This begs the question can a film maker really ever escape the artistic visions of those who've trodden a familiar path before, particularly when many feel the mould should have been broken after the first pot? The verdict seems to be yes.

That's perhaps surprising because the movie industry - particularly Hollywood - has a long-track record in getting re-makes of much-loved British film and TV spectacularly wrong: Sylvester Stallone in Get Carter. No further questions, m'lud! Having a Swedish director, perhaps, seems to be the key; Tomas Alfredson is schooled in the European school of pathos, character, drama and subtlety.

So. A much-loved British spy novel from a generation ago, with an instantly identifiable central character, previously filmed, and seared into our collective cultural memory, emerges onto the global stage in a remake.

I've no doubt that given the expected success of TTSP - with Oscar's already being polished, judging by all the online and offline comment - in some Hollywood office a producer is already asking the question: "what about The Ipcress File, huh?"

What about it, indeed. One word: unthinkable.

However, might that same cigar-smoking producer (one always assumes producers smoke, somehow) not also conceivably ask the question ..... "what about Game, Set and Match?"

Now that's a different question!

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