I love James Bond. Seriously, the 007 franchise is an absolute favourite of mine.
Heck, I’m a sucker for spy movies in general – from the Bourne series through to Mission: Impossible flicks all the way down to The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Yet even as I’m drawn to these films for their escapist thrills, there are times when I hanker for something a bit more “real”.
I’m talking about espionage yarns less about shooting up the bad guys and bedding gorgeous women, and more about the less glamorous legwork and moral quandaries that plague the secret agent trade as it exists in our world.
Fortunately, there are more than few films out there that cater to those with similar hankerings to get their fill.
One of the very best is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of the classic John le Carré novel – released in cinemas five years ago this month – the closing montage of which serves as the basis for this latest Anatomy Lesson feature.
If you’ve not seen the film since leaving the cinema way back in September 2011 – and if you’ve not seen it at all, spoiler warning, obviously – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy follows the efforts of veteran spy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) to uncover a mole within the upper echelons of the British Secret Service (“the Circus”) during the height of the Cold War.
After a lengthy investigation that tests his intellectual and emotional reserves to their limits, Smiley eventually uncovers the turncoat operative: Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), the deputy head of The Circus.
After this stunning revelation is brought to light, the formerly disgraced Smiley finds himself elevated to Chief of the Circus, and Haydon is arrested and set to be exchanged with the Soviets.
However, this last part of the plan goes awry, when former field operative Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) learns that his recent capture and subsequent torture by the Soviets was the result of treachery committed by the man who was once his closest friend…
The first thing you’re likely to notice about the final montage sequence in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (shown above) is its soundtrack.
In a stroke of sublime genius, Alfredson and composer Alberto Iglesias chose to set this footage to a live cover of French song “La Mer” by Julio Iglesias (no relation to Alberto).
Chosen because it was a track the filmmakers believed Smiley would play when alone, its upbeat, dreamy and romantic qualities juxtapose brilliantly with the on screen imagery – as Alfredson once put it, the song epitomises “everything the world of MI6 isn’t.”
Because unlike James Bond, these people are not romantic figures in any sense of the word, and the lives they lead are neither upbeat nor dreamy.
Just take Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux.
Alfredson and editor Dino Jonsäter cleverly kick off the montage with a flashback to a Christmas party years earlier, allowing us to see the two dear friends – and quite possibly lovers (both book and film are intentionally ambiguous on the subject, although it is strongly suggested this is the case) – share a brief, tender moment.
Firth and Strong are outstanding here, somehow able to convey a deep, unspoken affection between their two characters with only the slightest facial expressions and shifts in body language.
Observe how Prideaux’s body language changes, starting out stiff and reserved, before the lightning rod moment when he notices his friend.
The shared smiles and intense gazes they go on to share speak so much louder than any words could, and when Prideaux starts to rise to his feet, only for Haydon to abruptly turn and exit the room, the subsequent heartache etched into Prideaux’s dejected visage is well and truly sold to the audience.
The moment where Prideaux’s face hardens then neatly segues into a present-day scene of Prideaux calmly marching along the outskirts of the military compound where Haydon is being held.
This transition is vital, as it gives us an emotional entry point into the unseen moment when Prideaux first realised that had been utterly betrayed by the person most important to him.
Notice also that Strong’s movements here are very unlike the typical cinema spy; this is not the dramatic, cat-like stealth employed by a 00 agent, but rather the no-nonsense trudge of a career soldier.
This extends to the workman-like way in which Strong has Prideaux raise his rife, but it’s the following moment that really deserves attention.
Haydon, glumly looking out at the countryside visible through the high fence surrounding his quarters, appears to notice something; at the same time, Prideaux lowers his weapon and stares wistfully at his target – echoing the connection the pair shared all those years ago at the Christmas Party – before cocking the rifle in his hands.
We cut back to a close up of Haydon, and then there’s the sound of silenced gunfire, and small hole is gouged into his cheek, just below his eye.
The wound begins to leak a single drop of blood from near Haydon’s eye and down his cheek, and if the resulting evocation of a tear is hardly subtle (or even overly original), it represents an oddly moving visual, particularly when the action shifts back to Prideaux, who has an (actual) tear marking his own face.
With this section of the montage, Alfredson, Strong and Firth have really captured one of the most crushing themes of le Carré’s novel: the disconnect between the human spies and their inhuman work, which has no room for loyalty, trust or love.
They masterfully communicate the inner turmoil raging within poor Jim Prideaux, who – as Smiley comes to understand in the book – no doubt began to suspect Haydon, but who ignored his suspicions out of love, resulting in his ultimately being sold out and then in turn seeking bloody revenge on a man who he truly adored.
That we are never totally sure whether or not Haydon saw Prideaux outside the compound – and therefore essentially allowed himself to be killed – is another wise move by Alfredson (not to mention screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan), as it hints at Haydon possibly feeling remorse for his actions, at least so far as Prideaux is concerned.
It also serves as a nice nod to the events as depicted in the book, where it’s implied that the old friends shared a conversation together, before Prideaux snapped Haydon’s neck – a vicious yet quick method of execution, and one suggesting a desire to exact retribution as painlessly as possible.
From here we next cut first to similarly downcast-looking field operative Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) – smartly framed behind the bars of a shop window by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, visualising his emotional prison – followed by a shot of retired Circus analyst Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke), peering out despondently from her cottage window.
Again, we’re able to see that these are sad, lonely people – the type of individuals initially drawn to spy work due to certain natural talents, but who are eventually burnt out by it.
Tarr – filled with regret and remorse after his efforts on Smiley’s behalf lead to the murder of the woman he loved – and Sachs – forced into a bleak, companionless retirement – are both a far cry from the confident, fulfilled secret agents who headline more escapist fare, and the subsequent visual of Haydon lying dead, face down in the dirt and leaves, really hammers home the harsh reality of the spy game.
Which naturally leads us to Smiley, in many ways the least impressive protagonist to ever star in an espionage story.
Unlike the charming and handsome James Bond, who effortlessly woos, beds and discards a seemingly endless string of women, Smiley is forever being cuckolded by his beautiful, uncaring wife, Ann, to whom he is utterly devoted.
As we see him enter his house and realise that Ann – who Alfredson and Hoytema choose never to let us see clearly, leaving her as aloof to us as she is to her husband – has returned to him, he pathetically steadies himself on the staircase banister before clumsily approaching her.
It’s an exceptionally insightful window into just who George Smiley is: an unremarkable (albeit clever) man who is only truly secure and in control within the cloak and dagger realm of his profession.
This is all but confirmed when we at last arrive at the final moments of the film, when Smiley returns to the Circus to claim the top job, his confident stride the polar opposite to his awkward shuffle when engaging his wife.
When at last he enters the main meeting room – not without first silently acknowledging protégé Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), the latter’s triumphant smile again reminding us of the ever-shifting fortunes at play in this cut-throat domain – and sits in the Chief’s seat, the supremely confident body language and facial expression his assumes are all the proof one needs that here (and here alone) is where George Smiley feels comfortable and adequate.
The applause (courtesy of the live “La Mer” recording) that greets Smiley as he settles himself on his new throne is a cute touch, but it also adds a layer of irony – this is ostensibly a victory for Smiley and the “good guys”, yet they’re all still just as miserable as ever – that elegantly ties off the different narrative threads of the montage, and perfectly draws the film itself to a close.