Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy from the outside looking in Agns Poirier

13th September 2011, Comments 0 comments

Swedish director Tomas Alfredson captures 70s Britain superbly in his new film. National psyche is often best left to foreignersWhether we like it or not, it often takes a foreigner to make us see who we are. As I watched Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the quintessentially British spy story directed by Swedish film-maker Tomas Alfredson, at the Venice film festival, how fascinating it was to see how well a Swede had captured Britain and a certain fringe of British society in the early 1970s. Espionage may be a French word; it is nonetheless a British forte.Gary Oldman's Smiley and John Hurt's Control are superbly cast and so are their MI6 colleagues and foes Ciarn Hinds, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong. Together, and directed by Alfredson, they lead the audience not only into the maze of a masterful plot by John Le Carr but, even more interestingly, into the psyche of a nation. It is difficult to pin the film's achievement to one thing in particular, as everything concurs to exceptional brio: the pace, the characters' gaze, the silences, the lies we know and the truths we ignore, Smiley's dogged determination and physical fatigue, and the central question of loyalty and idealism in the most pragmatic of societies. Alfredson is assuredly a keen reader of Le Carr but everything shows he has thoroughly read Joseph Conrad.Alfredson's cross-cultural prowess makes me think of other "foreigners" whose insight into another culture has managed to operate as an agent rvlateur as in black-and-white film development. Austrian film master Michael Haneke has, better than most, treated of the Franco-Algerian difficult relationship in his film Cach. One can of course see this as a film noir where the audience vies to resolve a mystery. It is, however, much more than a thriller with an enigmatic ending. Cach is also a study of the malaise at the heart of French society, its relation with Algeria, shown in a very novel, almost psychoanalytical, way that no other film-maker has managed to capture so clearly. As for the best film on the Franco-Algerian war, the Italian Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers remains unsurpassable. In comparison, the Franco-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb's films Days of Glory and Outlaws, despite their box-office success and their whipped-up parfum de scandale, strike both the critic and viewer as being rather limited, with Bouchareb being too close for comfort to his subject.This healthy and enriching distance to a subject doesn't only work in cinema, of course. We all know about Henry James's exquisitely spot-on study of The Europeans or American historian Robert Paxton's ruthless yet fair account of Vichy France. Polish historian Bronislaw Geremek's studies on medieval France often have a depth his French colleagues' tomes lack.This foreigner's extra insight has undoubtedly to do with an author and artist's talent, coupled with their knowledge of the culture they study and the healthy distance I'm talking about. Being an outsider is certainly not enough to guarantee the salience of one's vision. You may for instance remember Sofia Coppola's ill-inspired and empty take on Marie-Antoinette. Its enduring legacy has been to make old-fashioned Ladure's macaroons trendy again. No doubt Le Carr by Alfredson will leave a deeper mark.British identity and societyJohn Le CarrJohn HurtColin FirthAgns Poirierguardian.co.uk © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions More Feeds

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