Politics & Policy

The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck

A review of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

The boy stood on the burning deck

Whence all but he had fled;

The flame that lit the battle’s wreck

Shone round him o’er the dead.

With mast, and helm, and pennon fair,

That well had borne their part—

But the noblest thing which perished there

Was that young faithful heart.

[Note: The following review contains spoilers.]

Once upon a time, during the Napoleonic wars, two great empires came to death grips at the Battle of the Nile. In an act of heroism, self-sacrifice, and defiance, a lone boy sailor stood his ground on the doomed French flagship, L’Orient. The day went to the British, but the sight of this fearless French lad burned the mind of every witness to his death, his name, Casabianca, immortalized in poem and legend and in the annals of devotion and bravery.

#ad#Centuries later, two empires once again came to death grips, in a shadowy struggle called the Cold War: a very ideologically bitter, bloody, treacherous mess. Today, as we look up from the present crater of confusion, the Cold War appears with almost fairytale-like clarity — East versus West, Good versus Bad, but at the time, the Cold War was for many a morally questionable enterprise, with the will to prevail crumbling on every front.

Tinker, Tailor begins with an agent being sent to bring a Hungarian general over to the British side. The pinch goes wrong, the envoy is wounded and captured, and the Brits’ Eastern European network of agents is rolled up. Inevitably, a bureaucratic price must be paid. The upper echelon of the Secret Intelligence Service — commonly known as MI6 — is fired for incompetence. The top man, known as Control, and his number-two, George Smiley, resign under a cloud. Le Carré has famously nicknamed the whole enterprise “the Circus” for its locale overlooking a roundabout in London — Cambridge Circus — but the nickname also reflects the pompous, supercilious, and curiously cavalier attitude of the administrators running the place.

At about the same time as the Eastern European networks are being blown, a wonderful new font of information coincidentally appears out of the blue for the Circus worthies. Dubbed Witchcraft, it promises to shift the balance of power back to the West, with MI6 holding the weighted pan, leaving the overfed American intelligence complex begging for scraps and the Empire returned to her rightful place in the great game.

Then a young, tough field agent named Ricki Tarr goes missing over a Russian woman and just as suddenly returns with tales of disinformation, moles, and betrayal. The new gang at the Circus rush to cover their asset and reinforce their reliance on the incredible Witchcraft material and its source (Merlin) . . . but nevertheless an investigation at ministerial level is launched. Is it possible that one of the new masters of MI6 is a mole? Retired George Smiley, formerly “Control’s man” at the Circus, is brought back from obscurity to find the weakest link. And thereby hangs the new movie.

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In the creative world, when a literary work is beloved or admired, multiple adaptations can be produced: Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Dumas’s Musketeers, King’s The Shining, and now le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The story is so plot-dense that those who aren’t familiar with the BBC version or le Carré’s Karla Trilogy will have to pay strict attention to follow the drama.

The new version is basically the same as the BBC epic, but with far less exposition. As before, the agent sent to collect the Hungarian general, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), is betrayed and captured on a Budapest street; Control (John Hurt) is overturned at the Circus and replaced as head of MI6; and “Control’s Man,” George Smiley (Gary Oldman), is forcibly retired. Once again, the AWOL agent, tough guy “Scalphunter” Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), appears in London seeking refuge and someone to trust, having been rebuffed by the new regime. As Control is now dead, Tarr appears at Smiley’s townhouse. Ricki has tried bringing over the wife of a “Karla-trained hood” in Istanbul (Karla is the code name of a high-ranking “Moscow Centre” (KGB) spymaster), another pinch gone wrong, but before the winsome lady is snatched back to Moscow, she tells him that all the precious material from Witchcraft is disinformation; worse still, there’s a mole at the highest level of MI6.

#ad# Alas, this kind of tale doesn’t sit well with the new powers at the Circus; they are simply too heavily invested in Witchcraft intelligence. And tales of traitors at high levels are routinely considered a paranoid fantasy. The old boss, Control, long suspected a possible traitor among his four lieutenants, but could never prove it. These four men now run the Circus: Percy Alleline, Bill Haydon, Roy Bland, and Toby Esterhase, whom Control once codenamed Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, and Poorman in a failed effort to divine the traitor.

Control’s replacement is the ambitious nob Percy Alleline, in the first version played by Michael Aldridge and in the new version by Toby Jones. The two actors could not be more different. In the BBC epic, the ambitious Percy Alleline is an erudite, haughty praying mantis of a man. In Tomas Alfredson’s new version, Alleline is an angry Scottish pug as repellent as the former is superficially attractive. Both versions of the man work well, but the new chief of the Circus seems to radiate imperial finality. In a word, the new Percy Alleline is Napoleonic.

Gary Oldman as George Smiley

George Smiley is at first reluctant to investigate his successors, but his desire to discover the truth and prove his old boss, Control, right overcomes his reticence. He employs as “his own” man inside the Circus a younger agent named Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch). Guillam is out of favor too, marking time in a backwater den of MI6. His distance from the machinations of the central office makes Peter Guillam’s honesty beyond reproach; also, he was the rebuffed Ricki Tarr’s contact inside the Circus, dutifully passing along rumors of betrayal that no one wanted to believe. Therefore young Peter Guillam is the perfect man to do Smiley’s dirty work inside the castle.

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Cumberbatch has the open face of an innocent, first in his class, but without guile or unsightly pride. No one will suspect him, and Smiley can trust him. Eventually Smiley sends young Peter to snoop and collect damning files, which he manages to secure despite a close scrape in the conference room under the suspicious gaze of the nasty new top echelon. All four men stare at him like some kind of bug that they’re considering wiping out for good.

All the strengths and weaknesses that go with re-creating an elaborate and previously filmed story are present in the Alfredson take. Fans of the BBC version may miss le Carré’s linguistic tropes, as when the haughty head man, praying mantis Percy Alleline, purposefully mispronounces Peter Guillam’s name in the infamous conference-room scene: “Now listen . . . young Peter Willham.” Or the echoes of Alec Guinness’s precise velvet voice weighing his choices for mole: “Three of them plus Alleline . . . ,” which Guinness repeats throughout the mini-series and which sets the four possible traitors firmly in viewers’ minds. This time around, Alfredson uses chess pieces with miniature pictures of the four suspects taped to them — a game of chess the late, now dead Control played in his flat, alone, covered in dust. A deadly game, never finished.

#ad# This movie is less a “spy story” than a story about spies. About how anyone can be used, and how you lose whatever is precious to you. It’s a story told as much in the characters’ faces as it is in dialogue. I was torn between the previous version and the new, but I found myself wanting to see the movie again, and that’s the mark of any creative enterprise well done: It provokes, engages, and demands something of you besides passive acceptance.

The unsmiling, bitter face of Control is the visage of a broken, impotent king, who knows his time is up, shouting, “Get out, all of you!” as he finally realizes his court has conspired against him and there is nothing he can do.

The new regime’s usurper, Percy Alleline, becomes a Conference Room Grand Inquisitor, grilling Smiley’s young operative Peter Guillam within an inch of his life. And he nearly ignites the screen. Percy’s bulbous, Scottish head looks like it’s about to lunge across the conference table for a chunk of flesh; Guillam flinches in his presence.

At the end of the film, when the usurper Alleline is himself repudiated, that bulbous face has changed into a noxious, melting clot of human pudding. We see him totally disgraced, stumbling past a sentry gate in the dripping rain, a figure of dazed defeat.

The traitor, Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), has the easy manners of a polished, well-heeled swank, enamored of himself; a fellow whose born station in life preserved him from facing a hard choice until it came to loyalty or dishonor. And, turning from the mirror, he chose dishonor. As he shares a secret smile with the agent whom he will soon betray, and who will eventually return to kill him, Firth’s weak, knowing smile becomes a wordless plea, Stop me, can’t you see what’s about to happen to you? Stop me . . . 

Colin Firth as Bill Haydon

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After months in the vicious hands of the KGB, Jim Prideaux is returned to England, a broken man. Licking his wounds and drinking heavily, Prideaux is living in a dented trailer, a teacher at a boys’ school, while underneath he’s a simmering cauldron of reckoning. But Prideaux retains just enough competence and sanity to tell Smiley everything he needs to know to set the trap.

Ricki Tarr, the bearer of bad news that there’s a Moscow Centre mole inside the Circus, and that Witchcraft is clever Russian “chicken feed,” is by turns seductive, brave, desperate, and honest. Given a man’s job by Smiley to clear his name, Tarr takes over the Paris office at gunpoint and dictates a message to HQ designed to spring Smiley’s trap. The once desperate, hunted Ricki Tarr subdues the men in the dingy Paris outpost with an Errol Flynn swagger long missing from modern film.

#ad# But the two crushing moments in the movie are owned by Smiley. The first moment comes with Toby Esterhase (“Poorman”), one of the four suspects (David Dencik), but in actuality a dupe. Here the master tactician squeezes the oily Hungarian administrator with bare words at an abandoned airfield. Oldman, with a calm and deadly resolve, says, “I want to talk to you about loyalty, Toby . . . ” He makes Esterhase crack under the weight of his own foolish assumptions, seeing that the other top men have played him for a fool all along. Finally Esterhase begs the implacable Smiley, “Please don’t send me back . . . ” Meaning across the Iron Curtain, a fate worse than death.

The second crusher is with the barely penitent Bill Haydon (“Tailor”), awaiting his fate in a holding cell. Smiley raises the question of the traitor’s KGB handler: “Did Karla ever consider having you take over the Circus?” Smiley asks.

Haydon is taken aback, “I’m not his bloody office boy.”

And Smiley’s harsh reply the slap of reality:

“What are you then?”

A brutal insight from which Haydon never recovers; the actor Firth responds weakly, “I’m someone who made his mark.” So do mice.

Peter Guillam comes last because he is the boy of this story, and in a certain way, the very same one who stood upon the burning deck. As Smiley prepares to set his trap for the mole, the master tactician warns young Peter that doubtless they’re all under surveillance, and asks him if there’s anything of a personal nature young Peter has to address. The implication is of some squalid affair or other that could be used against them all. In this cold, terrible world, the innocent Peter Guillam has to clean his own nest.

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Coming home at the end of the day, he asks the very bourgeois and proper, slightly older gentleman he shares his life with to leave their flat. To get out. In a nearly silent scene, the older man gently slides his house keys on an end table, murmuring quietly, “If there’s someone else, you can tell me, I’m a grown-up.” Young Guillam barely shakes his head. But when he’s finally alone, he breaks into pieces, sobbing, a moment of terrible pathos and sacrifice. A moment, Peter realizes, that can never be set right. The noblest thing that perished there was that young faithful heart. He’s become the boy on the burning deck.

Oldman with Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam

Indeed, before the film ends we hear Peter Guillam repeating the poem Casabianca from memory, speaking it out loud as a sound-check for Smiley’s hidden microphones in the rooms of a secret safe house, now the locus of their trap. Quietly and reverentially, Guillam recites the poem, one that every schoolboy learned in school: The boy stood on the burning deck, whence all but he had fled . . . The flame that lit the battle’s wreck, shone round him o’er the dead—

#ad#Peter breaks off, and Smiley, listening in another room, seems to nod. He well understands the sacrifice young Peter Guillam has made for the service. It’s the sacrifice all true agents make, a piece of themselves.

In the last moments of the film, time has passed; the old regime swept away, the next regime in place. Young Peter and the restored Smiley, now in charge, run into each other in the Circus hallway. Each wears a similar, new three-piece suit, a subtle sign of maturity, as though they both now go to the same tailor. Smiley’s suit is dark charcoal, young Guillam’s a lighter shade of gray. The two men share a silent acknowledgment. More than comradeship, greater than pride: the mutual recognition of a critical accomplishment — a young man’s painful sacrifice, a terrible business finally set right, and Smiley’s respect.

— Keith Korman is a literary agent with Raines & Raines and the co-author, with Rich Lowry, of Banquo’s Ghosts.

Keith KormanKeith Korman is an American literary agent and novelist. Over the years he has represented many nationally known clients through his family's agency, Raines & Raines. The agency is most ...

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