The Loneliness of the Long Distance Agent: sexual vulnerability and emotional trauma in Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

    Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentation


    During a key scene in Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 adaptation of the popular spy novel by John le Carré, George Smiley (Gary Oldman) confronts Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) over his double-dealing with the Soviets. Haydon, exposed as the mole at the heart of the Circus, has been “batting for both sides”. This is made clear when he asks Smiley to do a bit of 'housekeeping' for him as he is shortly to be shipped off to the Soviet Union and an apparently ‘cricketless’ life in Moscow. Telling Smiley that 'there's a girl' and 'a boy', he asks him to contact them and smooth things over. In this intricately complex narrative something has just become clear to Smiley and the audience: Haydon’s unfettered libidinal drives have given him an edge in the world of espionage, making him capable of the emotional and physical connections that other agents within the Circus struggled to maintain. The careful handling of the ‘reveal’ in the guest house scene prior to the scene where Haydon elaborates on his motives for betraying his ‘set’ and his country, is cinematically distinctive in privileging the gaze over the more aural revelation of the novel. Although this is a subtle change, we consider it successful in capturing the novel’s themes around the rather abject domestic and workplace life of the spy. In this paper we seek to examine the reworking of the familiar tropes of Cold War espionage which Alfredson’s film presents, reinflecting Le Carrés narrative with layers of ‘recovered memory’ of cultural representations and historical revisionism. In particular we seek to forefront the shifting portrayal of sexuality this new adaptation deploys. As Willmetts & Moran (2013: 6) discuss in their account of the fascination with the Cambridge Five in British popular culture, “the story of the Five is also revealing of crises and contradictions in ideologies of masculinity. In spy fiction, homosexuality had long been used as a character trait of enemy agents.” In their discussion they argue that the spy fiction genre typically veers between two dominant modes of portrayal: the romantic mode of super agents like James Bond (virile, patriotic) and the realist mode exemplified by Alec Leamas in John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) in which failure and vulnerability becomes familiar tropes. We argue that Alfredson’s adaptation adopts a post-realist perspective of the genre, at once ‘romantic’ and ‘realist’ in its portrayal of the spies who spy on spies. Casting and performance become frames through which this particular adaptation reimagines the era of the Cold War and the legacy of the Cambridge Five. Publicity for Alfredson’s film would often acknowledge the earlier celebrated television adaptation (1979) of le Carré’s novel, and the very stylized nature of the 2011 production arguably suggests a nostalgia for a period that is both bleak and romantic. As Benedick Cumberbatch notes in an interview regarding his portrayal of Peter Guillam, “Spying in Tinker, Tailor is about very lonely men in a very high-pressure job, and the absence of women isn't just the mark of the workplace in the early Seventies, but it's also very much to do with how emotionally retarded these men are. It's a mark of the many sacrifices I think they made. And sexuality was a very powerful tool then. I keep my character's homosexuality secret because you are so open to blackmail. It necessitates a certain amount of secretiveness, which goes hand in hand with spying.” Our research will assess the extent to which Alfredson succeeded in his mission to capture this mood of the times.
    Period3 Sept 20155 Sept 2015
    Event titleSpying on Spies: Popular Representations of Spying & Espionage
    Event typeConference
    LocationLondon, United KingdomShow on map
    Degree of RecognitionInternational