On Specs: Visual Clarity amid Narrative Debacle in TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY

29 January 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, in its original form, is the first dense and lengthy novel of the Karla Trilogy, written by John le Carre in 1974.  In 1979, a 5-hour BBC mini-series adapted the novel, and this past year a feature film condensed the material further, to just over two hours, for the silver screen.  Yet, although the shortest of all representations of this narrative, Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the feature-film, still contains all the plot twists, characters (and characters and characters), historical information, and espionage jargon of its much lengthier interpretations.  Thus, audience members watching Alfredson’s film are unavoidably overwhelmed by the seemingly insurmountable narrative.

As briefly and straightforwardly as possible, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy takes place in 1973 during the Cold War.  Control (John Hurt), chief of the British Intelligence agency known as the Circus, retires at the beginning of the film.  Strangely, he forces his right-hand man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), to retire as well.  Due to their departure, other members of the Circus, Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), and Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), assume Control and Smiley’s positions within the organization.  Shortly after his retirement, Control dies, leaving Smiley with a nearly impossible task.  Control had information that there is a Soviet spy in the Circus, meaning one of the three men in Circus is feeding the Soviets top-secret British Intelligence information.  Before dying, Control code-named each man:  Percy as Tinker, Bill as Tailor, and Roy as Soldier.  In his “retirement,” along with trusted Intelligence connections, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), and Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke), Smiley embarks on an international investigation to uncover which British Intelligence agent, Tinker, Tailor, or Soldier, is the spy.

Reduced to this plot summation, which is devoid of the narrative’s density, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy boils down to one essential question:  who is the Soviet mole in the Circus?  Subplots aside, Smiley’s quest to uncover the mole, completing the work of his mentor, Control, is the film’s driving force.

Curiously, in the midst of a complicated narrative, the mole’s identity is a relatively simple thing to figure out.  In fact, aesthetically speaking, this film actually calls attention to the mole himself rather early on in the film.  To unpack this idea will require a close look at a highly significant motif in the film, a motif in the form of a prop, glasses.

Smiley wears glasses, and not just any glasses, thick, brown framed glasses.  Theoretically speaking, in a film, male characters who wear glasses are “see-ers,” typically meaning they see what is happening within the film from a better perspective, or have a heightened awareness and/or knowledge of something significant within the film.  An important distinction, but complete aside, is that female characters who wear glasses are typically stripped of their femininity on film; thus, females who wear glasses are weakened and challenged in cinema.   Women in films are there to be seen, not to see for themselves.  Nevertheless, Smiley is a male, and his thick framed glasses represent his alert, clever persona and his ability to see through the guises around him to find the truth.

This argument in justified by the film when Jim Prideaux, now out of British Intelligence, becomes a teacher at a school for boys.  One of the outcasted boys, Bill, who builds a bond with Jim, wears large glasses, not dark in frame, but very similar to Smiley’s.  Jim notably tells Bill “as long as he’s got his specs” he will always be able to see things.  Jim empowers the young boy with the constant reiteration that he is strong because he sees things around him clearer and more objectively than others.  Moreover, toward the end of the film, when Smiley visits Jim at his school, Jim calls Bill over to him as the boys are all playing on and open field.  Jim points to Smiley, who is standing at the other end of field.  From this distance, Smiley paces, waiting for the opportunity to speak to Jim.   Jim prompts Bill to look at Smiley and tell him what he sees.  Through this action, the film is calling to attention Bill’s perspective, through his “specs,” is a desirable one; to Jim, Bill can see Smiley in a way others cannot.

With the motif better examined, enter the mole.  Bill Haydon inconsistently wears thinly-framed glasses in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  At times, Bill attends the Circus meetings, at the start of the film, with glasses on, but mysteriously loses them as the film progresses.  Once the film establishes Bill wears his glasses in top-secret meetings, but misplaces them other times, it becomes clear he is the mole.  Only the mole would become a “see-er” during top-secret meetings, so he would have information to pass on to the Soviets, but be unable to see outside the meetings, as Smiley narrows in on the Circus spy.  Haydon is a “see-er,” but only when it comes to information for the Soviets, making him an ideal spy.  Yet, Haydon is not as consistent a “see-er” as Smiley, who wears his glasses always, thus is unable to see Smiley’s investigation will lead to his undoing.

It is ironic that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is so complicated from a narrative perspective but could reveal itself so simply from a visual standpoint.  Yet, while the mole’s identity is the film’s driving force, its intricate exploration into espionage during the Cold War is the film’s true purpose.  Thus, by the time Tailor gets outed, in the conclusion, the film fizzles out.  Tailor’s fate now seems minuet and unimportant compared to the portrait of the Cold War Alfredson’s film painted.

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 29/01/2012.

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