Geoff Pevere: The Two George Smileys

As George Smiley, the inscrutable British spook created by John le Carré in 1961, Gary Oldman wears a mask of pale flesh. With the exception of a very few scenes in Tomas Alfredson’s worthy interpretation of le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Smiley is impenetrably unreadable. His inner life is inaccessible and you understand this is what it takes to be a spy of Smiley’s vintage and calibre. He’s let the human leach out of him and, as he embarks on a complex mission to expose the Russian ‘mole’ who has infiltrated the top levels of the so-called ‘Circus’, you realize he’s been either reduced or elevated to a form of pure function. The ultimate bureaucrat, a cyborg with public health spectacles.

It would be an entirely fascinating and legitimate performance were it not for the fact that Oldman is competing with the definitive Smiley interpretation, which is Alec Guinness’s in the magisterial 1979 BBC adaptation of the same book. In that version, Smiley is anything but non-human. Indeed, what sticks in memory about Guinness’s Smiley is precisely how human he is. No matter how efficient, driven, detached or determined he is in his quest to discover who the rodent is, his face is always registering the surface ripples of that which he must contain. It’s a heartbreaking, astonishing and definitive performance – and perhaps too close to Guinness himself for comfort – and it leaves anyone attempting to play the same guy at a brutal disadvantage. Even if that anyone is as formidably talented as Oldman.

However, Oldman is the perfect Smiley for this Tinker Tailor. Unlike the earlier adaptation, which had several hours to unspool le Carré’s sinuous plot and let characters live, breathe and palpitate within it, Alfredson’s version is a two hour feature, and it’s job is to compress the story to an essence: in this case, the boiling of the tale into a grim, stainless-steel hard satire of institutional intransigence, an ironic comment on what it takes to triumph in a context where deviousness is the norm, no one is what they seem, and the only thing that gives a guy away are the cracks that form from the internal pressure of prolonged concealment. As the one man whose cracks never show, Smiley’s the guy who wins.

Back in 1979, when the Cold War was still in play and the people who adapted le Carré’s novel were living in the moment, the priority was less to provide a metaphoric interpretation of the novel than to dramatise a secret war’s toll. The men who worked both with Smiley and against him were people who’d spent their lives devoted to a kind of never-ending chess game, and for whom personal ambition, career improvement and the settling of ugly old accounts had become paramount. (One can’t help but wonder if the fact that it was a BBC production, and therefore a British institutional take on British institutional horrors, didn’t also contribute to its atmosphere of sublime claustrophobia.) It was the only form of victory they were permitted, and it had warped their morality irrevocably. These were guys who would drink tea with you while pondering your obliteration, and the tension between the carefully observed rules of social propriety and the nasty reality simmering just below is what gave the program its charge. That and Guinness’s profoundly subtle turn as Smiley, the most polite and ultimately ruthless gentleman of them all.

But it takes time to establish a character like this. We need to spend as much time observing him as he does others, and we need to be tutored in the subtle vocabulary of gestures, looks and calibrations of response that stand for what is not, and cannot, be said. In this context, it is things like how Smiley cleans his glasses, where he chooses to sit in a room, whom he looks at and whom he ignores, that tell us what he’s thinking and who he is. Indeed, his actions are the least revealing aspect of his character, for they are what he presents to the world, and what he presents is the mask that makes his survival possible. As an actor, Guinness understood this process of not-revealing with astounding intuition, and his George Smiley transfixes us because of the work we must do merely to fathom his murk. We know there’s a human in there somewhere, and what compels us is seeking an understanding of how that sublimated soul has survived all these years of tactical self-exile.

Alfredson’s movie, by contrast, is all surfaces: from the steel-gray industrial interiors to the tweedy fabrics, the grime-splashed office windows and patent leather shoes slapping on linoleum, and especially in the caricatured comic faces of the cast, everything in the new version ofTinker Tailor Soldier Spy is exactly what it appears to be. There are no secrets save how and when they will be revealed, and there is no tension between the hard exterior of things and the hidden humanity beneath.

Through it all, Oldman maintains his mask of inexpressive professionalism. Nothing really rattles him, his stabs at empathy seem less felt than feigned, and you never wonder if he might blow everything by letting all that bottled up, internally combustible personal stuff pop the cork. In this way, he’s every bit as sleek, superficial and charismatically cipher-like as the man he’s so often been held as the antidote to, that Bond fellow. Come to think of it, Daniel Craig could just as easily have played Smiley in this fashion.

But Alec Guinness couldn’t. As skilled and technical an actor as he was, Guinness always registered something going on just out of reach. He was an actor who always seemed to be acting, and if that sounds like failure it was anything but. At his best he played people who needed to pretend to keep their true selves hidden and safely tucked away, and that’s why George Smiley was his role of a lifetime. If there’s one thing to be said for Gary Oldman’s rendering of the same man, it’s that it wisely didn’t try. We might even call this tribute.

Geoff Pevere’s column appears every Friday.

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Geoff Pevere has been writing, broadcasting and teaching about movies, media and popular culture for over thirty years. He can’t help himself. His column appears every Friday.

One Response to “Geoff Pevere: The Two George Smileys”

  1. keirensmith Says:

    I’ve been dying to see this movie but I loved the mini-series and wondered how it could possibly better it. And I adore Gary Oldman (okay, yes, who doesn’t?) but Alec Guinness was absolutely and utterly George Smiley. One of the things I so love about John Le Carré’s novels is his ability to write actual real characters–by the end of the very first page of the Tinker, Tailor trilogy, I felt like I knew George Smiley, knew who he was…I wanted to shout at all his co-workers and tell them how much they were taking for granted such an intelligent, capable man. I wanted to slap his wife.

    In the mini-series, Guinness brought THAT character to life.

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