I went to see this largely because it's got Benedict Cumberbatch in it, and I adore watching him act. However, I wouldn't have bothered seeing it at the cinema if it weren't for the fact that it also had Colin Firth and Tom Hardy, two other actors who I enjoy quite a bit.
I knew literally nothing about it other than it was a film based on 'a spy novel' by John le Carré. No idea of the context, the decade, the plot, the characters, anything. Spy films or books aren't usually my genre, but I was giving it a go for the actors, like I say.
First impressions were that it was really bloody slow to get going. Apart from the first couple of minutes, after that nobody seemed to speak for about five minutes. I spent a long time at the beginning trying to work out what decade it was set in, and eventually settled around the sixties somewhere. Found out from reviews later it was meant to be the 70s. I think what said it best for me was someone saying his young companion turned to him and asked whether the seventies was really that colour, and he replied, "No, it was bright brown."
The film was incredibly evocative and atmospheric. Unfortunately, once I've had an atmosphere set I kind of like something to happen in it. This was almost as if they'd forgotten that second part for a very long time. Things did eventually start to happen, but even then there was an awful lot of sitting around, meaningful looks, and talking which was really hard to follow.
My dad said if he hadn't read the book years ago he wouldn't have had a clue what was going on. I got most of it (I think) but it was very hard work. I had to concentrate completely, and the hard work wasn't helped by the fact that (due to the book's nature) pretty much all of the key players were white, male, middle class and middle aged. Recognising Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Stephen Graham and Kathy Burke was very useful (especially the first three) in being able to keep track of who was who and how they fitted in. Didn't recognise Gary Oldman at all, though I do know him from Harry Potter, but that's the only thing I've seen him in.
The flashbacks actually made things a bit more confusing for the first couple. Sometimes it was difficult to know what was a flashback and what wasn't. As for that schoolboy, I spent a long time wondering if that was Bill Haydon as a youngster being picked up by Prideaux as a future spy. My dad thought at the end that this was still true but I thought it couldn't be because otherwise why would Prideaux have suddenly gone a bit mad at him and told him to bugger off? I figured that must have been a present thing rather than a flashback, after he'd spoken to Smiley about what happened in Hungary. Also it seemed like being a teacher at that school was what happened after he was 'killed', not years before.
As for Prideaux, I couldn't pick up his name in the whole film. I thought for the first half that his name was Control, and then only when they were talked about together did I realise that Control was the old bloke who used to head the Circus (?) and the guy who'd been shot in Hungary had a different name.
I couldn't for the life of me work out why Prideaux was pushing a caravan. I thought he'd just broken down or got stuck randomly outside the school and then him appearing as a teacher later seemed bizarre. Also, why would he live in a caravan? That seemed like the sort of school where teachers would board, but perhaps not.
I lost track of whether we ever found out what Irina's vital information was.
I had no idea of how Smiley worked out that Prideaux was alive and how he found out how to contact him. In fact I thought that scene in the caravan with the two of them looked like a mixture of present time and flashback, though I'd need to watch it again to be sure.
Couldn't work out either how Haydon was the mole. I thought they'd worked out that him, Alleline and Esterhase (and Bland? I can't remember if he was one of them - him and Esterhase were mentioned so little apart from that scene on the airfield) were all feeding information to Polyakov which they thought was going to the Americans but was actually going via Karla to the Russians. Dad said that he was the mole because he knew it was going to the Russians and he had encouraged the others to feed info with him, but I didn't get that at all until he said it. It makes sense given that Haydon said he preferred Russia for its aesthetics, but how did Smiley work it out?
Having Prideaux be the one to shoot Haydon also seemed a bit odd to me. I wasn't sure whether this meant it was an order or whether it was a personal thing.
I knew from that scene where Smiley talks about Karla and then tells Guillam to sort out whatever he needs to sort out now that he had known Karla, and what he said was what meant Karla knew to send Haydon after Ann as his weak spot, but I missed (if it was mentioned) in what capacity they knew each other. I guessed that Karla had been a spy for the Brits and then he'd gone back to Russia to what he thought would be his death but had been offered instead to spy for the Russians, so he'd done that, but I have no idea if that guess is right.
As for the scene about Guillam getting rid of his partner, I'm torn on that. On one hand it was a nice little scene which showed a bit more of Peter's character and obviously fit in with the whole spy thing, another reason to lie and all, and it was a good excuse to watch more Benedict. On the other hand, it didn't really fit with the rest of the film, in that we didn't really get this from any of the other characters. We knew about Ann but only because she was important in terms of the affair and then how Smiley treated Haydon. I thought that 'sex scene' with Tarr was irrelevant until I realised a bit later that it was to show how he actually cared about her, not as a source but as a woman (even if that was a bit...quick). But I don't think anything would've been different if we hadn't had Peter's scene.
I've seen some reviews mentioning that many of the characters were underused. I got enough of Haydon to fit him in, and Alleline a bit but mostly in my head he was just painted as fucking annoying. But Bland (if he was indeed important, and it says a lot that I don't know) and Esterhase were just there, seemingly to make up the numbers.
The ending didn't fit, either. Guillam smiling at Smiley and then Smiley taking the seat in the chair to that music like it was all some jolly jape and they'd defeated the problem and all was well...no. You'd be bloody miserable having worked out that one of your close colleagues had been a mole, two or three more had been morons who couldn't be trusted, for Guillam he'd lost that relationship...
And I had no idea why or how Ann turned up again. Nor why Smiley seemed to accept her so easily, but I do know that really; she's his weakness. I just don't know in the sense that if a mate did it I'd be yelling at them, "But she cheated on you! How can you trust her?!"
Anyway. Overall, it was interesting. But definitely not one I'd want to watch again. I probably would if it was on, or if someone else wanted me to watch it with them, but I won't be buying it, even if it does have Benedict Cumberbatch in it. Far too slow to be enjoyable once you know what happens, I think. You can take the pace the first time when you need it to be that slow just to keep it straight in your head, but after that it would just drag from scene to scene.
Having said that, I must say that the best scene for me was Guillam's stealing of the file. It was the only one with any real tension, where I was chewing on my hoodie (I do that) waiting to see if he'd be caught, and what would happen, and then when he got called up to Alleline...ooh. If there had been a few more scenes like that I'd have been a lot happier sitting through the endless sitting and thinking and talking and listening to other people talking.
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