“Peter Guillam, you may not be aware of this…”

2 Jan

…but I am possessed of an extremely forgiving nature. I positively seethe with goodwill.” –Percy Alleline (Michael Aldridge), 1979 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy miniseries

In both John Le Carré’s novel and the 1979 miniseries adaptation, the tense heart of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is Peter Guillam’s attempt to extract a file from the Circus (Le Carré’s name for MI6) reading room. Just as he begins to sigh in relief, he is intercepted and taken to a meeting with the big four of the Circus, one of whom is certainly a Russian mole. He is gently interrogated on a different matter and let go, quite rattled. All of a sudden his paranoia seems more justified than ever before.

Peter Guillam is having a nervous breakdown in slow motion. He’s back from a disastrous job in North Africa where all of his agents were killed. He thinks his girlfriend (one of a “network of girlfriends who were not, as the jargon has it, inter-conscious”) may be, to borrow a phrase from the Moscow Rules, “under opposition control,” or maybe even sent by his own side to keep tabs on him, or at the very least she’s sleeping with her flute teacher. Peter Guillam is also facing a crisis of faith. There is a very real possibility that the man whom he most looked up to is a traitor. He has been asked by another person he respects, George Smiley, to turn his eye inward and information-gather at work. He gets more and more nervous. There is a very real danger that he’ll snap.

In the miniseries, Peter Guillam is played by Michael Jayston.

Jayston gives us an excellently understated Guillam who nonetheless seems on the verge of homicide. Prep school accent and sleepy eyes notwithstanding, when Ricki Tarr, another “scalphunter” of teetering emotional stability, makes a lunge for George Smiley, Guillam hits him. Later, he shoves Toby Esterhase unnecessarily into a wall. When the mole is unveiled, Guillam comes close to killing him.

There is not enough time in the five-hour miniseries to follow Guillam home and meet Camilla, so the domestic paranoia is absent from his otherwise spot-on and fascinating character. In Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 cinematic adaptation of the novel, recently released in the United States, we do get a glimpse inside Guillam’s flat and find that it contains not a female flautist of questionable loyalty, but a male lover who probably doesn’t deserve to be abruptly dumped. He is dumped, however, by a Guillam (played by Benedict Cumberbatch with a lot going on behind the eyes) every bit as paranoid as his predecessors. 

I understand that adapting a labyrinthine novel into a two-hour film is an undertaking, but I couldn’t help coming out of Tinker, Tailor and remembering how I felt years ago when I went to see Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I was a casual Harry Potter fan, and Azkaban remains my favorite of the movie adaptations, but I was, nonetheless, disappointed. With a lot of back-story cut, it was difficult to follow for those unfamiliar with the book and the characters’ motivations were not always clear. Alfredson and his screenwriters do a better job of assembling a standalone film, but I find it difficult to imagine attempting a viewing without some kind of foreknowledge. Some cuts make sense. Consolidating Sam Collins and Jerry Westerby was a masterstroke. Condensing reams of character dynamics into drunken eye contact and offhand comments at an office Christmas party was an inspired move. Eliminating Roddy Martindale was fine. Casting an empty chair as Karla was perhaps the best decision of all.

Back to Peter Guillam. I would have loved to have seen Cumberbatch handle the character as he appears in the novel. Re-imagining the character as gay (in an era when homosexuality was only relatively recently decriminalized) certainly underlines how Guillam’s personal life has become compromised by his occupation, even though the film very much presents it the other way around. This re-imagining also places Guillam more firmly in line with Smiley and Haydon and Prideaux and Tarr, men who have been–or have the potential to be–undone by their sexual or romantic ties. In that respect, Guillam’s new characterization is very much in keeping with the tone of the novel, if not the letter of it. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but regret the decision for a number of reasons.

Tinker, Tailor already paints a complicated (and, I would argue, nuanced) picture of a range of sexualities. From Connie Sachs’ male-directed flirtatiousness and eventual female partner, to Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux’s ambiguously sexual (and unambiguously romantic) past, from Haydon’s affair with Smiley’s wife Ann and the subsequent imbalance within the Smiley marriage, to Ricki Tarr’s suddenly challenged woman-in-every-port philosophy. I worry that Guillam’s black and white I-must-hide-my-homosexuality-or-risk-blackmail storyline undercuts other, less easily defined sexualities and plot threads by turning the light down on them, the tragedy of the Haydon-Prideaux relationship in particular, but also the unrelenting way Smiley’s colleagues dredge up his wife.

At times, this character simplification flirted with assimilationism. Most glaring was the last conversation between Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) and Bill Roach (William Haddock), a lonely little prep school boy who sees Jim as a cool and mysterious father-figure. Roach, according to Jim, is a natural watcher; “us loners always are.” Once Jim points out these observational skills, Roach takes them up with great pride, only to be crushed when Jim, who has just returned from his last glimpse of Haydon, rounds on him: “I don’t want you hanging around here. Keep away from me from now on. Go and join the others. Just bloody join in. Go and play, damn you.”

Novel Bill Roach gradually eases Jim out of his disappointment. Miniseries Bill Roach stumbles over the pronunciation of “shew” and Jim is there to help him. Film Bill Roach gets a verbal slap and the revocation of his special loner status. Being a watcher will only get you so far; at some point you will require friends.

That is the contradiction at the heart not only of Alfredson’s film but Le Carré’s novel as well: relationships, friendly or otherwise, are a liability. You can only rely on yourself. Keep your eyes open and watch. Gather the clues. On the other hand: it’s impossible to do anything alone. Surround yourselves with people you trust. With the right people on your side, you can face the unthinkable.

Friends can save you, or they can ruin you. All you can do it roll the dice and pray.

At the film’s conclusion, Peter Guillam is seen grinning at the newly reinstated, and, indeed, promoted, George Smiley as they pass each other. Professionally speaking, Guillam is in a good place. It is presumed that his personal life, too, has potential under the new regime. At the end of the novel, Peter Guillam is struggling to understand the betrayal that has shaken the Circus. His slow-motion nervous breakdown will continue well into The Honorable Schoolboy and lead him to accept a cushier, less complicated job in France in Smiley’s People, where he also appears happily and unsuspiciously married to a French woman named Marie Claire. This eventual culmination to Guillam’s arc would seem almost disappointingly conventional, but for the fact that in taking his French job he is very much settling for something less. For Guillam, the Circus, even in its renaissance, will always be After the Fall.

Last-minute riflery notwithstanding, the film comes to a soundly, and oddly, optimistic end. For such a complex plot, it ends very neatly. A movie with this much brown and grey and these many arctic pauses and chilly interactions should be able to end with more at stake. With characters boiled down to easily checked boxes, however, it might make sense that, ultimately, the film suffers the same fate of simplification.

Like Percy Alleline I am possessed of a forgiving nature. I enjoyed the film, and perhaps it was because of this that I felt disappointed when it fell short of greatness. Nonetheless, it did many things right. The unmasking of the mole was underplayed, underlining my favorite thing about Le Carré’s story: everyone, on some level, already knew, but didn’t want to admit it. Tom Hardy’s Ricki Tarr was mesmerizing. Hardy played a character who, however pivotal, had never quite gotten my full attention and took that attention by force. The screenwriters gave Control (John Hurt) some great put-downs, perhaps explaining a bit why Alleline et. al. felt so little remorse at his ousting. Connie Sachs got some great new lines (“I don’t know about you, George, but I feel seriously under-fucked,” and “That was a good time, George,” to which Smiley replies, “It was the war, Connie”). “Jerusalem” was played for a split second in an echoing staircase. Colin Firth grinned his way through many a scene, but always with an edge. Mark Strong credibly killed an owl. Svetlana Khodchenkova was a (finally!) level-headed Irina.

Tinker, Tailor is full of fragile men with lethal occupations. Perhaps my favorite innovation in the Alfredson film is a piece of graffiti that appears twice towards the conclusion: “The Future is Female.” Suddenly, I was gripped with desire to see an all-female version of this story, or something like it. Without the locker-room, insular, old-boys world, where would the mole burrow? I’m sure it could be done. Now those would be changes worth trying.

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3 Responses to ““Peter Guillam, you may not be aware of this…””

  1. Michael Schuler July 29, 2012 at 6:01 pm #

    I’ve been thinking about similarities and differences between the 1979 BBC production and the recent movie, and the ways that they departed (or didn’t depart) from the storyline of the book. While I’m not crazy about some of the changes in the movie (e.g., portraying Tarr as a sympathetic character), I agree that a good job was done condensing things without leaving out important content. Here’s hoping that they also do a movie adaption of Smiley’s People.

  2. accidentobizaro March 14, 2014 at 6:28 pm #

    Just got to this by googling ‘Why is Peter Guillam gay?’ Very nice, subtle analysis. Lovely job.

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