Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "The Iron Lady": Britain in the 1970s

London Streets in the '70s
      My family lived in England during the ‘70s and I remember the country held hostage through power cuts, strikes, and various other incidents by the trade unions.  Edward Heath’s Conservative government and Harold Wilson’s and James Callaghan’s Labour governments were incapable of leading a
Britain that was a shadow of the “sun never sets on the British Empire.”  I also remember living in a NATO nation in the middle of the Cold War and the feeling that East Germany and the USSR weren’t too far away so, hopefully, we’d stay close to the US, which everyone knew was the only superpower committed to the freedoms won at the end of World War II.

      Two current films are grounded in Britain’s role in Europe and the world during the somber seventies.  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, adapted from John le Carré’s modern class about a Russian mole operating at the highest level of the British spy service, nails the overcast look as a symptom of that era’s paranoia.  Director Tomas Alfredson set Let The Right One In during the late ‘70s and that also felt perfect for a vampire suspense thriller in a Swedish apartment complex.  Maybe Alfredson needs to choose a contemporary or different historical period for his next movie.  

      Le Carré worked as an MI6 officer, akin to a CIA agent, before writing spy novels.  Tinker takes off from the suspicion that Roger Hollis, head of MI5 (sort of like the FBI) from 1956-1965, was a Russian double agent.  Peter Wright in Spycatcher went further to state his belief that Hollis was working for the Russians.  The British also believed that US intelligence undermined the Wilson government because he seemed too soft and left and might also have been connected to the Russians.  The British leaders wanted to prove their loyalty to the Americans, while there were some rebels within the uppercrust that perversely felt a stronger kinship to the Soviets, even though the workers’ state had been flushed away by Lenin and Stalin through the mass assassinations of all dissenters and then the continued presence of their original allies that they viewed as political threats.  

Gary Oldman as Retired Agent George Smiley
      The movie’s plot follows the book in that a KGB defector has shared many secrets with the British, but there have been a number of blown operations behind the Iron Curtain so the intelligence higher ups question the information the Russian has given them and Control (John Hurt) – Director-General of ‘The Circus’ – is certain a Russian double agent has undermined the service.  Basically, it’s a whodunit with the fired George Smiley (Gary Oldman), the only protégé that Control trusts, leading the investigation.  

      The movie is tough to navigate because of the continual flashbacks (of 6 – 18 months previous to the investigation) that aren’t introduced with any changes of lighting, music, or anything.  It looks like a documentary, though one that’s been carefully shaped, but it loses storytelling clarity.  I lived through this and read the book and there were a couple of times when I had to reply certain scenes from earlier in the movie to get where we were later.  JFK used extensive flashbacks, but did so in a baroque fashion that rarely, if ever, stranded the audience.  Tinker feels like fact based on fiction whereas JFK felt like fiction based on fact (even though it insisted upon its authenticity).  JFK had greater suspense because we knew the stakes and we knew people were being killed within the United States to keep secrets.  Tinker, while extremely tense, is not as suspenseful because we aren’t sure exactly what’s going on and the actors, though extraordinarily authentic, don’t give away much emotionally so there’s less for an audience member to either empathize with or jump onto as plot information.  Plus, except for the very end, none of the deaths take place on British soil so the stakes don’t seem as high even though the security of Britain (and NATO and, therefore, world-wide democracy) is shaken.  Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan either needed greater freedom to include about another fifteen minutes to underline plot points or they needed to restructure those flashbacks.  Alfredson paces the first twenty minutes so slowly that you cannot tell what will be important.

      It’s a classy film, terrific looking with a lot of excellent, invisible acting.  Just a quick look indicates that one leader has been fired or a wince demonstrates that the traitor feels guilt and ambivalence.  The younger generation of actors provides the zip to the whole enterprise.
Tom Hardy
Tom Hardy lights up the film as Ricky Tarr, the agent sent to Istanbul to investigate a Russian agent, though he ended up having an affair with the agent’s wife and wants to get her out of the USSR.  Hardy stopped Inception in its tracks when he first appeared and that’s remarkable because he was acting with Leonard DiCaprio.  Benedict Cumberbatch is both coltish and elegant as Peter Guillam, Smiley’s in-house investigator that has to keep his operation secret.  Though he’s tall and almost has an aquiline visage, this is nothing like his remarkable work in the new Sherlock Holmes series on PBS.  Guillam is both an honorable schoolboy and uncertain he’s up to saving Britannia.  Mark Strong is Jim Prideaux, the agent shot at the beginning that then appears later as a schoolmaster and even later as an assassin.  It’s an almost impossible role because there’s so little that’s explained, but Strong’s presence creates the only character with a soul.  Strong was wonderful in The Long Firm a few years ago on TV and I’m just glad to see him pull off a decent role in a big movie.

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher
      The Iron Lady is all about Meryl Streep, thankfully.  Without her, there’s nothing and nobody worth watching except the British TV news footage from the ‘70s and ‘80s.  I’ll make the case that a solo Meryl Streep, as Margaret Thatcher, quoting from Thatcher’s book and setting that both with and against that news footage would have made a far more compelling and convincing political biography than the drivel written by Abi Morgan and directed – I’d say overseen because to direct a film means that someone has a point of view and knows where to place the camera and how to pace the plot and Phyllida Lloyd is clueless in all of these areas.  I saw Lloyd’s earlier Mamma Mia and the cast made it work, even Pierce Brosnan who’s not a singer, because they were all so committed.  However, the pacing in that was hopeless as well and the chorus members were used bizarrely.   

The Polarizing Views of Margaret Thatcher
      A great deal of wasted screen time is devoted to Baroness Thatcher doddering about her lovely townhouse and nattering on with her husband Denis, who’s actually dead.  This is supposed to be shocking, I guess, at first, though after The Sixth Sense it raises nothing more than a little surprise and I really thought we’d find out that she had an undiagnosed urinary tract infection.  No such luck for her or us because this was the idiotic framing device Morgan used to tell Thatcher’s story mainly in chronological order.  Jan (she and Mike saw it with us) thought that the device was there to make Thatcher more sympathetic to American audiences and I agree.  However, I’d prefer that audiences have the chance to understand Thatcher and her policies and respect her guts, even though I personally don’t agree with some of her policies and Thatcher’s strength metamorphosed into obstreperous arrogance at the end of her career.  The movie touches on this, but it’s a light touch and for viewers that don’t really know a lot about Thatcher (and I’d say that would be most American viewers), it just seems like it’s about the first and only woman elected to Parliament who set those men straight with her common sense and gift of home economics as applied to the state.  They never liked her for it, though she won a war (in as long as it took Neil to visit the rest room) and unemployment dropped and then she was really rude to a very nice gentleman and they ganged up on her and then she became sort of wobbly, but could still be sharp with her daughter who suffered from an unfortunate overbite.  Yup, that’s about the whole shebang and so much of it is either wrong (there were female members of Parliament and female ministers – cabinet secretaries – through much of the era portrayed here) or soft pedaled (she was unbelievably polarizing, being both beloved and reviled).

      Streep is brilliant and we expected her to be, but the highpoints of her performance are all over the previews.  There was one point as aging Margaret when she says “Weak, weak” and her inflection reminded me of the great Molly Sugden playing Mrs. Slocombe on the TV show Are You Being Served, while referring to men as “weak as water, weak as water” when they wouldn’t volunteer for shenanigans.  Slocombe would have played the doddering for laughs and that might have been a more successful choice.  I wish Alexandra Roach, playing the young Thatcher, could have had more scenes to show Thatcher’s early marriage and relationship to her children.  Another approach would have been only to concentrate on Thatcher wrestling the leadership of the Tories in 1975 and then being overthrown in 1990.  It would have been ironic and tragic.  Thirteen Days only dealt with Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, rather than his entire presidency.  We saw him as a very complex leader and the political maneuvering was both intriguing and suspenseful, though we knew the outcome.  My Week With Marilyn explores only a month in Monroe’s life, but it’s all we need to understand where she came from and where she’d end up. 

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