A most Delicate Truth from John le Carre

delicate truth by john le carreJohn le Carre‘s spy novels were always a cut above for me; him and Frederick Forsyth ruled my thriller firmament in my teens, when the second-hand book stores were raided for the Colin Forbes, Len Deightons, Adam Halls, the Bond books, and soforth.

It was le Carre’s mood that won me, the sheer honesty of his tales in which grey was the colour de rigeur and the good guys, if you could find them, were never guaranteed of victory. As with the Cold War, everyone was playing for a draw.

In A Delicate Truth, his latest, he examines matters of conscience and political expediency, as a former British diplomat and a serving public servant find an incident on Gibraltar has not so much a delicate truth but a damned inconvenient one for Her Maj’s government. Against the backdrop of terrorism and rendition, mercenaries and dirty tricks, it’s a fraught tale of men unable to sleep easily with guilt and the ways in which the system seeks to silence them.

The characters are stoic, suitably reserved, in their dealings, and the dialogue is brilliantly esoteric, with echoes of phrases used to at times Yes Minister levels of cutting effect within the overall atmosphere of growing malevolence. Le Carre knows when to be sparse and when to use his astute descriptions of setting, a wonderful example of crafted world building.

While the end note was superb, the actual climax felt a little convenient, just a touch, but in no way undermined the story or the carefully presented character arcs that brought it about.

It’s been a long time since I devoured The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — the Tomas Alfredson movie was beautifully realised — but A Delicate Truth takes me right back to the joy of those masterpieces. Le Carre is as foxy as he ever was.

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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier … Subtle. And so very superb.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is an astounding movie. From the sets, to the camerawork, to the dialogue, to the acting and wardrobe — simply astounding.

This superb adaptation — the scriptwriters deserve a gong — of the John le Carre Cold War spy classic is directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In — the beautifully filmed Swedish original) and the Swede has excelled again. The movie has a period feel — there’s film grain on the screen and a certain gloomy tint that gives the hint of age — and framing and depth of field emphasise the paranoia and claustrophobia of the era.

It’s a male tale, as the super spies of British intelligence are caught up in a hunt for a mole, real or imagined, amongst their number. Tasked with flushing out the bad apple is the outcast George Smiley, played brilliantly by Gary Oldman, heading a cast (including Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Rome‘s screen-chewing Ciaran Hinds) who rise to the challenge. Such restrained performances. How refreshing to see a script that uses such minimal dialogue and telling subtext, to see a film that allows the actors to convey so much through body language and expression, that trusts the audience and its own ability to reach them. For instance: a scene in the rain, one man with an umbrella, one without. Nothing needs to be said: their expressions and interaction within that frame tell us all we need to know.

I loved the Carre spy books when I was a teenager, and enjoyed the BBC TV mini-series they spawned in the 1970s with the perfectly cast Alec Guinness in the Smiley role. This movie has reminded me why: the gloom, the amorality and the understanding of it, the feeling of this being a believable glimpse of the spy game amid the fun and thunder of Adam Hall and Ian Fleming, the use of intelligence and observation rather than muscle and firepower, the damaged characters who know that not all is well that ends well.

There’s a clever piece of graffiti in the movie, too; while the Circus largely runs on the secretarial power of women officers, and one analyst gets some screen time and there’s one female agent who has a role to play, this is very much a boys club film, as the context dictates. But there, more than once on that wall, is a painted slogan, The future is female.

Nice, and about as overt as this film gets.

Smiley’s wife, the sexual relationships of the men, the volume of the silence and stillness, the absence of car chases and biffo: so much cleverness without it being obvious, without it breaking the narrative or the mood.

The pace is, as with the books, not so much slow as inexorable, and the two hours were over before I knew it. No surprise it has garnered 11 BAFTA nominations. It might only be January, but I can’t help but feel this has to be one of the best movies of 2012.

It’s a shame Amazon.UK has ended its free shipping deal to Australia (boo!) or I’d be sorely tempted to snaffle the pre-order for the DVD — it’s due for release at the end of the month!