The Future Is Female

In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, women are nowhere and everywhere

by Samantha Hinds

A tea-soaked palette floods recession London. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, we see the khaki styles and filing boxes of an empire packing itself away. Director Tomas Alfredson, known best for his gentle adolescent vampire tale (Let the Right One In, 2008), stays orthodox to neither John le Carré’s text nor the sonorous lurch of the film’s TV predecessor. Alfredson instead stacks rapid visual clues, beginning with a title sequence of offbeat jazz to underpin chain-smoking functionaries. With its singsong suspense among the classified stacks, Tinker has a bureaucratic bebop. Alfredson, a Swede, in an admitted second-language evasion, storyboards with the comic-book cuts of a kid who ran straight past the Oxford Classics to Tin Tin.

In Tinker, the Cold War strikes soothing, senile hues: mint, rose, brown. Le Carré’s MI6, dubbed “the Circus,” stands in brick and imperial ivory, its ponds marred by dead leaves. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, born 1971, resurrects 1973 through a dusky haze of cigarette smoke and locker-room steam. Despite a lively pace, weary tones pervade. Wiretappers huddle under red-veined ecru maps. Even bleak Soviet torture is conducted in a pastel room where a bun-haired monitor crisply folds her newspaper. As Václav Havel said when asked to recall the 1970s on the other side of the Curtain, “The first half of the decade is a single, shapeless fog.”

Tinker’s plot turns on the search for a KGB mole, but le Carré’s story really invokes dying glory — specifically, the duty and defeat of a Blitz-battered old guard under amoral new management. Gary Oldman’s George Smiley, the cast-off spy brought back to investigate a possible sleeper agent, is accordingly reduced and ruminative. We see him don oversize frames that highlight under-eye bags and jowls. He is a disheveled pensioner on an empty bed whose emotional range peaks at silent gagging.

Compare this to television’s Smiley: an arch Alec Guinness, playing the entire scale of upper-crust talk with a percussive lilt. Directed by John Irvin, the 1979 BBC serialization of Tinker suited only the ascetic. Viewers had to commit to six claustrophobic hours of calculated old-man maneuvers in thickly wallpapered rooms. The matryoshka doll of the series’ title sequence, nesting and revealing, indicated its nature: cramped but analytically gratifying in the extreme. The late Ian Richardson did “dandy in aspic” Bill Haydon best here: haughty, sniveling, and slim. (Colin Firth’s version in the new film swaggers out of turn.) BBC screenwriter Arthur Hopcraft ensured the old Smiley had a tense and inquisitive agency. Oldman — working with the redacted language of writers Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan — seems stunned silent by comparison, if touchingly so. He matches Guinness’ musicality only when describing an encounter with Soviet arch-nemesis Karla. Both actors convey Smiley’s dignity, but only Guinness gave him carriage.

The genius of the Smiley character is in his sublimation. Though under acute suspicion, Smiley is no Condor on the run. Nor, thankfully, is he an avenging “codger with cudgel,” avoiding spy actor Michael Caine’s reactionary turn to raging Harry Brown (2009). Smiley is too discreet for blood — at least among his own. Forgiven his vocation, Smiley would be the witness archetype at its moral best. A custodian of unspoken codes forged in wartime, spent Smiley watches former British knights-errant be bought off by the highest bidder. Tinker thus marks the point when the rational neoliberal approach to intelligence collection ousted the honor-bound gentlemanly spy culture of the Second World War.

The melancholy of generational irrelevance is present everywhere in Tinker. Here, we see the contemplative hero as forced retiree: beekeeper, constant gardener, chess hobbyist. “Your generation, your legacy” is the only call to action for these washed-out Allied code-crackers. Their descendants have proven brutal and naïve, circulating faked Soviet intelligence at the peril of British lives. As the Czech Havel noted, “An era of apathy and widespread demoralization began … Society was atomized, small islands of resistance were destroyed, and a disappointed and exhausted public pretended not to notice.” Alfredson’s film paints this mood of austerity in both the Eastern Bloc and a post-Watergate West.

Despite its 1970s provenance, Alfredson’s interpretation of Tinker inevitably echoes his context: the Global War on Terror. After all, knights beget mercenaries. No wonder today’s viewers instinctively sneer at Tinker’s Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) — like 24’s Jack Bauer, a phlegmatic blond thug: he is the new guard incarnate, self-righteously trading in false secrets for gain. His ugliness is apparent, but also implicit, signaling a moral rabbit hole that bottoms out with Blackwater and Guantánamo. Stately Tinker is a palliative after a decade of spy films that tried to sex up sputtering hegemony. Though camp romps and rogue assassin CGI-fests — such as 2007’s Bourne Ultimatum ($270 million in gross receipts) — still dominate the popular spy form, a new breed has emerged to illuminate the link between clandestine activity and corporate maleficence: films like 2005’s Syriana — an adaptation of See No Evil, the explosively dissenting memoir of CIA operations case officer Robert Baer — and le Carré’s Big Pharma thriller The Constant Gardener.

Though le Carré, an executive producer of Tinker, has been called a “morally purblind, mean-spirited left-winger” by fellow ex-spy Reuel Marc Gerecht, intelligence veterans generally applaud le Carré’s fiction for its healthy institutional cynicism. Each new le Carré adaptation reminds civilians of a critical need for crossover between political analysis and popular art. This means more than Stella Rimington, former MI5 head, becoming chair of the 2011 Man Booker Prize. This also means more than Stasi file subject Timothy Garton Ash burying his insights on cinematic verdichtet (concentration) and political reality deep within a New York Review of Books review of The Lives of Others (2006). Popular discourse needs its Graham Greenes, its Havels in reverse. Maybe disenchanted security-studies students will soon eschew private consultancy suites to instead make Hollywood magic. They can make bank, after all, compared with peers who perform divinatory analysis for Langley: Tinker has already pulled in over $10 million.

A recurring graffiti screed in Tinker — “The Future Is Female” — is a last gasp of Godard, conceding in cruel prelude to Thatcher. (And indeed, Jack Foley of Focus Features has stated that he staged Tinker as a box-office entrée to PG-13 competitor The Iron Lady.) This image is a fantastic subliminal jab, as Alfredson ensures throughout the film that Smiley’s wife Ann remains completely unseen.

Unlike spy fiction’s typical berating hearth harpy (see Angelina Jolie in 2006’s The Good Shepherd), Ann is not a main character. More pivotal is our one MI6 female, expert Sovietologist Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke). Her character is based on real-life researcher Millicent Bagot, a Cassandra of sorts who incisively first spotted British spook Kim Philby’s notorious defection. In the 1979 series, Connie is played by an apple-cheeked Beryl Reid. But Alfredson makes his smart Connie wasted and dowdy, her game-changing insight reduced to weird mammary paroxysms: “All my boys. All my lovely boys,” she murmurs, even when said boys have crushed her vocation. Meanwhile, Sir Percy impassively butters his toast.

The new style in spy cinema has been one of a tactical sexuality that is corporatized and weaponized. Rather than gentlemanly, it is positionally coded as female, an aesthetic that has its apotheosis in Nikita culture. Positionally, because it is all too easy for today’s viewers to imagine Tinker’s Haydon and his many sexual conquests remapped onto the ruthless playbook of a female spy. There is less separating Vesper Lynd from Lynndie England than we think. As agents, women are usually portrayed as either Amazonian young rough (Nikita, Hannah), or complicit iron lady (Madeline, Marissa). The only recent deviation from “ladies playing game theory in Prada” was in Salt (2010), a pleasant spell of androgynous agency (without even the apologetic maternal arc of Tarantino’s assassin in Kill Bill).

Tinker in its new iteration can be read as a lament over the depletion of tactical sexuality. Libido, having been abused and corrupted, is finally drained. Connie gets ditched by the academic-cum-government career machine, Smiley is cuckolded by his home-fire bride, and Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova) gets snuffed out for cracking the Natasha archetype.

Austerity kills … nearly everyone in spy films. Spy drama has always relied on its Spartans to conserve the homeland, while destroying home life. Richard Burton, as le Carré character Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965), complains that spies “are a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands.” In Tinker, homes are broken and life cycles hiccup: Smiley and Connie drink Johnny Walker like good Churchill men and stare impassively at teenagers nearly screwing. Young men, too, make sacrifices to the maw of Saturn and state. Easily the saddest scene in Tinker is also its quietest: when mod, boyish Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) — Smiley’s straight man, whom Alfredson has cleverly made gay — must by precaution dismiss his lover, who he “tidies up” from a dimly lit domestic kitchen.

“There’s a woman,” proclaims assumed defector Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) in classic spy trope. Ricki invokes the feral id of the Sixties in port-side Istanbul (switched from the original’s Hong Kong) to the tune of Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “Spinning Wheel.” To paraphrase Eric Ambler, Ricki is the ape to Peter’s velvet. As wronged man, he seethes, channeling Hitchcock’s version of John Buchan’s 39 Steps (1935). But if Ricki is messily libidinous, he is sympathetically so, sneaking into Smiley’s dark house in sneakers and blue jeans like a returned prodigal son. “I want a family, thank you,” Tarr declares righteously. “I do not want to end up like you lot.” Smiley protects this rogue “scalphunter” for upholding good old English chivalry toward a bloodied Russian moll. This safe harbor despite tactical risk is explicit value reinforcement, drawing a sad parallel between the capacity for action of the pre- and post-corporatized spy.

Tinker’s young elites debate brutal counterintelligence stratagems around a ruined round table, presented in a garish orange safe room instead of hushed parlor or dusty office. Only a single crystal decanter hints at spycraft’s old gentility. Once called “the infantry of our ideology” by le Carré, these new intelligence officials are commanded by bad faith. And their atomized greed has real consequences: We see a botched operation in a Budapest arcade that becomes tremulous ambush, leaving an infant suckling its dead mother. Notably, le Carré’s novel featured a front office full of “the mothers.” In the film, older women like Connie spend their fertile years on ascending beyond the secretarial pool. Iron ladies get no heroic denouement. Once depleted, they are passed off as hysterics and discarded. Austerity kills: The new Tinker reorients the spy-film genre to those classic poles of libido depletion in service to the corporate state: wasted young valor and bleached old servants of the good. Austerity in the sexual register is immensely, disdainfully cruel.

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