Thursday, 22 September 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Composer

This week's most high-profile film release is the big-screen adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John le Carré's 1974 cold-war espionage thriller. The natural comparison however is not that between book and film but between film and the 1979 TV miniseries starring Alec Guinness. There are plenty of good things to be said about Tomas Alfredson's film and it stands up well against the contemporaneous and impeccably produced TV adaptation, a high point of BBC TV drama.

One of the key elements to not only the detail of the productions but also the essence of the drama is the issue of what it means to be British, and specifically perhaps, English. Loyalty to a country is a difficult thing to explain, in the same way that the cultural essence of nationality is difficult to define: the treacherous mole, once caught explains that his decision was largely 'aesthetic'.

It is the aesthetic with which Alfredson and (TV director) John Irvin approach this tricky question. The designs and direction skip from the anonymous interiors  in which the spies operate, straight out into the home counties. The light is cool - autumnal - and grey. A college lecturer discusses 'her boys' and a put-out-to-pasture spook undertakes a position as a public schoolmaster. Everyone walks. When they talk at all, as so much is done with looks and tacit understandings, they talk understatedly. This is the England of AE Housman, in which wistful characters have been disabused of their preconceptions of the glory of conflict. They recognise that what precious little glory could be ascribed to their predecessors in real war, there is none for one another in the secret, closed-off world of the phoney one - and that this extends to their personal relationships.

Music then is a key player, making overt what the men naturally attempt to keep covert. Alfredson has employed Alberto Iglesias to produce a super score, a spare, chamber suite of music that manages tension and threadbare emptiness. There is even Elgar by the back door, the Salut d'Amour played by a jazz trio behind closed doors in a Budapest arcade. But none of this can match the music of the late Geoffrey Burgon (who won an Ivor Novello Award for the score for TV). If the opening credits speak of something dramatic then the famous setting of the Nunc Dimittis that closes each episode is something altogether more elegiac:

It's music at once nestled in the choral tradition that is the distant backdrop to the locations and lives of the characters but also ringing with a solo bugle with all its martial connotations. The modal steps between the voice and trumpet extend into the melody, old musical devices, incorporated in the compositional DNA of that most English, and pastorally evocative of composers, Benjamin Britten. This music is what the story is about, things lost in their solidity and objectivity to the mist of time, but no less real for that.

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