Tag: John Le Carré

The Constant Gardener (2005)

Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes in the brilliant and moving The Constant Gardener

Director: Fernando Meirelles

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Justin Quayle), Rachel Weisz (Tessa Quayle), Danny Huston (Sandy Woodrow), Hubert Koundé (Dr Arnold Bluhm), Archie Panjabi (Ghita Pearson), Bill Nighy (Sir Bernard Pellegrin), Gerard McSorley (Sir Kenneth Curtis), Pete Postlethwaite (Dr Lorbeer), Donald Sumpter (Tim Donohue), Richard McCabe (Arthur Hammond), Juliet Aubrey (Gloria Woodrow)

John Le Carré’s reputation as a spy novelist without peer can lead people to forget his books are often scathing condemnations of Western policy. The Constant Gardener, a superb adaptation of one of his finest novels, is no different. It’s a passionate, angry denunciation of how Western pharmaceutical companies, and their government partners, exploit the people of Africa. But it carries real force as it’s interwoven with a moving and tender study of grief and how it changes us, pushing us to see things from a different perspective. It’s that which gives the film its force.

Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) is a middle-ranking career diplomat, serving in the high commission in Kenya. His wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz), an idealist determined to make a difference, is murdered. Justin determines to get to the bottom of her murder – and finds Tessa was investigating a British drugs company using the distribution of AIDS drugs to poverty-stricken Kenyans to test an experimental TB drug, covering up the harmful side effects and disposing of the dead. As flashbacks reveal Tessa’s investigation and motivations, Justin becomes ever more determined to unmask the drugs companies, and the figures in the British government protecting them.

Directed with vibrant urgency by Fernando Meirelles, The Constant Gardener is part thriller, part romance and part study of loss. Continuing his style from City of God, Meirelles’ camera work is jagged, hand-held and often unsettling, becoming ever more disjointed and edgy as the plot itself heads into darker and darker territory. The film throws us into its Kenyan setting, not shying away from the poverty of the villages. At one point, an aerial shot travels from the golf course, where the British are at play, across a train track and settles on the neighbouring slums.

This is all part of the film’s anger, which translates Le Carré’s feelings from the book. Inspired by the story of an aid worker he met in Cambodia in the 1970s (and who died in Kosovo in the 90s), the film is as furious as the novel at the heartless exploitation of Africa for the benefit of Western companies. Who counts the cost of Kenyan lives lost to experimental drugs? Certainly not the rich and powerful, who keep any consequences at a distance and rationalise them as for the greater good.

And not many have the courage to stand up to this. Most it seems are like Justin – good people who prefer not to think about, or look to deeply at, the impact we are having on the world. It takes a firebrand like Tessa to shake things up – and she pays a huge cost for it. Starting with Tessa’s death, the film feels at first like a mystery, but the culprits are all too obvious. Instead the question is why, not who, and the dark conspiracy that unfolds is really about establishing who knew what rather than who was involved (everyone, of course, was involved).

Rachel Weisz (winning the Supporting Actress Oscar for her work here) excels in a part that could have been a holier-than-thou left-wing agitator, but which she makes warm, human and real. Tessa is a woman who cares deeply, but also loves deeply, who is genuine, unaffected and speaks her mind. Weisz’ performance hits just the right notes, passionate but playful. The bond between her and Justin is real and based on a deep love on both their sides.

So warm is her performance, that you totally understand the all-consuming grief and loss Justin suffers at her death. It’s a very different sort of part for Fiennes – gentle, vulnerable, sweet, far different from his more patrician roles. He nails the part perfectly, bringing out of it a great deal of emotional force. The film is a tender exploration of the impact of grief on a person, and the mixture of shock, sorrow, anger and confusion in Fiennes’ performance feels completely real. This stillness and sombre approach to loss carries real weight.

The film becomes both a crusade – the husband taking up the cause of his slaughtered wife – but also an unusual romance. The greatest pain for Justin is discovering that his wife kept so much of her life secret from him. She did it to protect him, but he longs for the chance to prove to her that he could have been her “secret sharer”, that she could have trusted him. Effectively the film – and Justin’s quest – is to emotionally reunite with his wife, to fully understand her. The emotional heart of the film is this story, the husband effectively communing with the ghost of his wife, wanting there to be no more secrets keeping them apart.

This does mean that, at times, the conspiracy angle of the film gets slightly rushed. A late sequence effectively is four confessions from supporting characters to Justin in a row. The film gets a little bogged down in the mechanics of Justin chasing down various pieces of paper. The eventual quest to find the doctor behind the scandal (a wizened with guilt Pete Postlethwaite) offers a rather neat resolution. But it doesn’t matter too much as the film culminates in an ending that is as bizarrely bleak as it is hopeful.

Beautifully shot by Meirelles, with a raw immediacy that keeps the tension up, with a genuine sense of Kenyan life, it has a wonderful cast of character actors doing their bit (Bill Nighy as an arrogant senior diplomat and Danny Huston as a weasely coward stand out). It’s a film that is full of righteous fury at the West – but also with a tender beating heat for the pain of grief and the struggle with mourning. Emotional and political, it’s the finest Le Carré adaption on film.

Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

Stellan Skarsgård is the Russian traitor whose secrets pose a danger for the British elite in Our Kind of Traitor

Director: Susanna White

Cast: Ewan McGregor (Perry MacKendrick), Stellan Skarsgård (Dima), Damian Lewis (Hector), Naomie Harris (Gail MacKendrick), Jeremy Northam (Aubrey Longrigg), Khalid Abdalla (Luke), Velibor Topic (Emilio Del Oro), Alicia von Rittberg (Natasha), Mark Gatiss (Billy Matlock), Mark Stanley (Ollie)

John Le Carré’s works often revolve around a dark, cynical view of government agencies as corrupt, indolent and focused on petty or personal concerns rather than doing what’s best for the country and its people. Is it any wonder that there has been such a burst of interest in adaptations on film and television of his work? 

Our Kind of Traitor is straight out of the Le Carré wheelhouse. On a holiday to save their marriage (after his infidelity), Perry (Ewan McGregor) and Gail (Naomi Harris) bump into charismatic Russian gangster Dima (Stellan Skarsgård). Perry and he strike up a surprising friendship – and before he knows it Perry is agreeing to carry information from Dima to the British intelligence services. This attracts the attention of MI6 officer Hector (Damian Lewis) who sees this as an opportunity to expose the corrupt links between Russian criminals and high-level British bankers and politicians. Dima, however, will only hand over the goods if he is promised asylum for his family – something the British authorities, aware of the mess his revelations could cause, are not happy to allow…

Susanna White, veteran of some excellent television series of the last few years, puts together a confidently mounted and generally well-paced drama, with many of the expected Le Carré twists and turns. If she leans a little too heavily on the murk – the green and blue filters on the camera get a big workout here – it does at least mean that we get a real sense of the twilight world the characters operate in, meaning flashes of wide open space and bright daylight carry real impact. She also really understands how violence is often more shocking when we see the reaction of witnesses rather than the deed itself – all the most violent and tragic events in the film are seen at least partly from the perspective of the reactions of those witnessing them. The sense of danger on the edges of every action, stays with us while watching this unjust nightmare unravel.

It also works really well with one of the core themes of the movie: our ability to feel empathy for other people and how it affects our choices. Dima is driven towards defection because of his distaste for the increasing violence of the next generation of Russian criminals, and their lack of discrimination about who they harm. He’s all but adopted the orphaned children of a previous victim of violence, and his motivation at all points is to insure his family’s safety. Hector, our case officer, is motivated overwhelmingly by a sense of tragic, impotent fury about his rival ensuring Hector’s son is serving a long sentence in prison for drug smuggling.

And Perry is pulled into all this because he has a strong protective streak – something that eventually saves his marriage. Perry frequently throws himself forward to protect the weak, with no regard for his safety, from his unending efforts to protect Dima’s family to throwing himself in fury at a mobster roughing up a young woman. His intense empathy and protective streak motor all his actions and run through the whole movie.

It’s a shame then that his actual character isn’t quite interesting enough to hold the story together. Nothing wrong with McGregor’s performance, the character itself is rather sketchily written. Aside from his protectiveness we don’t get much of a sense of him and – naturally enough – he’s often a passenger or witness to events around him. Similarly, Naomie Harris does her best with a character that barely exists.

Instead the plaudits (and meaty parts) go to Skarsgård and Lewis. Skarsgård dominates the film with an exuberant, larger than life character who never feels like a caricature and reveals increasing depths of humanity and vulnerability beneath the surface. Lewis matches him just as well, at first seeming like a buttoned-up George Smiley type, but with his own tragic background motivating a long-term career man to slowly build his own conscience.

Our Kind of Traitor handles many of these personal themes very well, but it doesn’t quite manage to tie them into something that really feels special. Instead this feels a bit more like a Le Carré-by- numbers. We get the shady secret services, government greed, good people trapped in the middle – even some of the characters, from the foul-mouthed spook played by Mark Gatiss to Jeremy Northam’s jet black Aubrey, seem like they could have appeared in any number of his novels. 

There is a film here that is wanting to be made about the invasion of the UK by dirty Russian money – but it never quite comes out as this Dante-esque, Miltonian spiral. Instead the film too often settles for more functional thrills, a more traditional or middle-brow approach that works very well while you watch it, but doesn’t go the extra mile to turn this into something you will really remember.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965)

Richard Burton lands in Cold War trouble in classic Le Carre adaptation The Spy Why Came In From the Cold

Director:  Martin Ritt

Cast: Richard Burton (Alec Leamas), Claire Bloom (Nan Perry), Oskar Werner (Fiedler), Sam Wanamaker (Peters), George Voskovec (East German Defence Attorney), Rupert Davies (George Smiley), Cyril Cusack (Control), Peter van Eyck (Hans-Dieter Mundt), Michael Hordern (Ashe), Robert Hardy (Dick Carlton), Bernard Lee (Patmore)

Spy stories fall into two camps. You get the wham-bam blast of James Bond and then you also get the grimy, isn’t-this-a-damn-dirty-trade stories that John Le Carré helped to turn into a major alternative. The book that really kicked off Le Carré’s career was The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, a slim, brilliantly written story of spies working exclusively in shades of grey. The book was a smash, the film was inevitable, and a damn fine film it turned out to be.

Richard Burton plays Alec Leamas, a former head of Berlin Station for the British Secret Service, who is recruited by the services’ leader Control (Cyril Cusack) as part of an elaborate scheme to discredit the cunning and dangerous head of the Stasi office in Berlin, Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter van Eyck). Leamas will go through a pretence of disgraced dismissal, alcoholism, jail time and half a dozen other indecencies to attract the attention of the East German defector recruiters in the UK. But will the relationship he develops during his disgrace with librarian and idealistic communist Nan Perry (Claire Bloom) endanger the whole mission?

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is shot in a grimy, gloomy black-and-white which is completely appropriate for the morally questionable escapades its characters get up to. Like Le Carré’s novel, the ends justify any means here, and questions of morality and justice are best benched. Characters who can’t let themselves to forget justice are doomed in this film. Genuine shows of real emotion and feeling are generally signs in this film that a person is doomed.

Martin Ritt’s literate script captures the style and tone of Le Carré extremely well – this is still one of the best, truest and most faithful capturing of Le Carré on the screen – and his direction also has a wonderful mixture of shabby kitchen-sink realism and classic Hollywood film noir class that makes for a brilliantly involving package. The pace of the film holds pretty well, beautifully carrying us through a parade of agents recruiting Leamas for the East Germans (each of which are dismissed with a shocking curtness by the next one along), and the final court room trial of Mundt (with its intricate exploration of the complex plotting of the novel) is extremely involving.

The film also has the benefit of a number of terrific performances, led by Richard Burton in the lead. By this stage of his career, Burton was already felt by many to be lost to serious acting in favour of big budget, Liz Taylor-starring pictures and Hollywood entertainment. But he rouses himself here to give one of his best ever performances. Leamas is a shabby, beaten down, little man (despite being played by Burton!) whose chippiness, dissatisfaction and aggression make him perfect as a possible defector. Ritt’s camera often focuses on Burton’s unflinching stares, his eyes seem to bore into the person he’s talking to, little oceans of anger and resentment.

Burton’s Leamas is deep down sick and tired of the world of spying, its betrayals and lies, and sickened with self-disgust at his own involvement in it. Burton skilfully underplays the role throughout, largely ignoring any temptation for grandstanding or big acting moments – instead he is as compromised, grey and lost as the rest of the film, in a superb performance of cynical disaffection. Bunched up, his grand voice dialled down, his eyes flickering with resentment – a great performance.

Claire Bloom is rather affecting as Nan (hilariously, her name was changed from Liz in the book as the producers feared she would be confused with the rather more famous Liz in Burton’s life) and Oskar Werner gives the film a major burst of energy just as it is flagging from one interrogation of Leamas too many, as a chippy, eager, sharp Stasi officer, who is determined to see justice done. The rest of the cast are filled out with some classy Brit character actors, who excel from suave (Robert Hardy) to seedy (Michael Hordern), while Cyril Cusack brings “Control” to cynical life and Rupert Davies gets to the be the first actor to play George Smiley on screen (even if he is only really an extra here).

Spy is a film of atmosphere. Frequently it trusts the viewer to catch up the plot as they go. Leamas actions are not always explained until late on – and we are constantly suspecting that we are only seeing half the story. Its a film that plays its cards close to the chest. This might alienate some, but it’s a true representation of Le Carre – and fits perfectly with the weary sense Leamas has of not being in control of his own life.

But what Ritt does so well is keeping that tonal sense of there always being another shady, compromising twist around the corner. All is never what it seems, and the film ends with an especially bleak series of footnotes as we find out just how ruthless both sides are prepared to be in this soulless chess game of Cold War politics. It’s the moments like this that Spy Who Came in From the Cold really nails. For Le Carré fans the film is a must: for those less interested in the world of espionage, they may find it takes a little too much time.

The Deadly Affair (1966)

James Mason deals with marital and professional deception and betrayal in spy thriller The Deadly Affair (in every meaning of the word!)

Director: Sidney Lumet

Cast: James Mason (Charles Dobbs), Maximilian Schell (Dieter Frey), Harriet Andersson (Ann Dobbs), Harry Andrews (Inspector Mendel), Simeone Signoret (Elsa Fennan), Kenneth Haigh (Bill Appleby), Roy Kinnear (Adam Scarr), Max Adrian (Adviser), Lynn Redgrave (Virgin), Robert Flemyng (Samuel Fennan), Corin Redgrave (David)

The Deadly Affair is a faithful adaptation of John Le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead, that first introduced to both Le Carré’s distinctive vision of espionage (a world where spying is a dirty, depressing business, miles away from Bond), and also his principal recurring hero George Smiley – although Smiley here is renamed Charles Dobbs (Paramount held the rights to several recurring Le Carré characters as it was making The Spy Who Came in From the Cold). The Deadly Affair often gets forgotten in the list of Le Carré films, which is unfair – this is a fine, gripping, character-led thriller.

Charles Dobbs (James Mason), a senior case officer in British intelligence, meets with Samuel Fennan (Robert Flemyng): a civil servant in the Ministry of Defence, who has been anonymously accused of being a Russian agent. Dobbs all but agrees to clear Fennan in a friendly meeting – only for Fennan to go home and commit suicide. Dobbs investigates, but quickly finds that the facts – and the story of Fennan’s wife Elsa (Simone Signoret) – don’t seem to tie up. Working with retired police inspector Mendel (Harry Andrews), Dobbs investigates further – against the wishes of his superiors. This also helps to distract Dobbs from his disastrous home life with his serially unfaithful wife Ann (Harriet Andersson) and her growing closeness to his old war friend Dieter Frey (Maximilian Schell).

The Deadly Affairhas an old-school, unflashy, Hollywood professionalism to it, very smoothly directed by Sidney Lumet. Lumet and photographer Frederick A. Young slightly exposed each shot of the film to give the colours a drained, murky quality, which works extraordinarily well for the grimy Le Carré feeling. Lumet uses a series of careful POV and shot-reverse-shots to involve the audience neatly in the action – we are nearly always seeing events from someone’s perspective, and this helps us empathise with the characters and action. He also uses London locations expertly – everywhere is carefully chosen and shot for maximum impact, creating a world of dingy backstreets that perfectly matches the feeling of the story.

It also helps that Lumet changes very little from what was already an excellent source novel. It’s an intricate “whodunnit” puzzle, twisty and challenging enough to keep the audience guessing. What the film does really well is introduce Dobbs’ wife Ann as a central character in the storyline, and to make marital betrayal and deception a complementary subplot, alongside Dobbs’ involvement in the world of professional bluff and counter-bluff: during the day he practises the very same deception that pains him so much at home. (Le Carré would effectively lift some of the ideas of this film adaptation and reproduce them in later books, most especially Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy.)

This marital disharmony becomes a key theme in the movie – two people who are totally reliant on each other but can’t seem to stop hurting each other. Ann is in many ways the hellish wife – serially unfaithful and largely unrepentant – but Dobbs is equally difficult, unnervingly patient and silently (but never vocally or perhaps even consciously) judgemental. They have a complex arrangement, but also a clear understanding of each other, and their conversations sound like careful, familiar routines. Like a scab, Dobbs keeps picking at this wound of his wife’s infidelity – early in the film he returns home after a late call out to find his wife naked in bed. She rises to greet him provocatively, and they kiss, but Dobbs seemingly can’t let go of his own sense of impotence. Later Ann demands Dobbs expresses some rage and jealousy – as if looking for him to show some sort of feeling.

It’s a neat sub-plot for a film that focuses on a series of major personal and professional betrayals – I counted no fewer than five over the course of the film but there are probably more depending on how you define it – and which shows how spying can become wrapped up in personal affairs. Despite Dobbs’ apparent pride at treating his work with a determined coolness, everything is so very personal in this film. Characters react often with emotions rather than cool rational thinking – with the exception of one character who uses the emotions of others very rationally to manipulate them. Even the final confrontation of the film has a sad loss of emotional control at the centre of it – and leads to actions bitterly regretted by the survivors.


James Mason is very good as Dobbs, buttoned-up but slightly run-down, a man who presents a face of calm control and wisdom to the world, but at home is an insecure, deeply pained, impotent mess. Determined and principled in the world of espionage, he is hopelessly in love with his wife, to the extent of practically allowing her free rein to do as she wishes. Despite being in nearly every scene, it’s also a very generous performance, quiet and unshowy, that often cedes the scene to his partners. Harriet Andersson (though clearly dubbed) manages to make Ann someone who feels sympathetic and understandable – even though she is a colossal pain.

Lumet also gets some wonderful performances from the rest of the cast, not least from Harry Andrews who I think steals the movie as a narcoleptic Inspector Mendel, obsessed with facts and possessed of a dry professionalism. The film also gives a gift of a role to Simeone Signoret, a woman with a troubled past and indeterminate motives, bubbling with guilt and resentment. She is given no less than three tour-de-force scenes (one played almost in complete silence) and plays each brilliantly. There are neat cameos as well from Max Adrian (as a campy popinjay running Dobbs’ department) and Lynn Redgrave as an eager stagehand for an amateur theatre company with some vital evidence. 

The film’s conclusion revolves around two masterfully done sequences: one during a performance of Edward II (by the real Royal Shakespeare Company – spot several familiar actors on stage), the second an emotional confrontation at a dock that erupts into violence. It’s a wonderful dwelling on betrayal and its impacts. It also works an absolute treat as a low-key counterpart to Bond at his Swinging Sixties height, while still packing a jazzy score from Quincy Jones (which at first seems completely incongruous but actually helps to establish the mood really well). Directed with professional assurance with a host of fine performances – it’s a little bit of an overlooked gem.

The Russia House (1990)

Connery and Pfeiffer go behind the Iron Curtain

Director: Fred Schepisi

Cast: Sean Connery (Bartholomew “Barley” Scott Blair), Michelle Pfeiffer (Katya Orlova), Klaus Maria Brandauer (Dante), Roy Scheider (Russell), James Fox (Ned), John Mahoney (Brady), Michael Kitchen (Clive), J. T. Walsh (Colonel Jackson Quinn), Ken Russell (Walter), David Threlfall (Wicklow)

Based on John Le Carré’s novel, The Russia House was one of the first espionage thriller films released after the fall of the Soviet Union, and therefore found itself exploring the curious impact of Glasnost on the games of one-upmanship that East and West played with each other.

Barley Blair (Sean Connery) is an over-the-hill publisher with connections in Russia, who is enlisted by MI6 to recruit the mysterious “Dante” (Klaus Maria Brandauer, a little too mannered for the film and under used), whose manuscript about Russian nuclear readiness has been intercepted en route to Blair by the intelligence services. Blair’s main contact is Dante’s former lover Katya (Michelle Pfeiffer), a woman trapped in political games.

Second-tier Le Carré is brought to the screen in a film that perfectly captures the authorial voice, but missing  narrative drive. Tom Stoppard’s adaptation masterfully captures the nuances and rhythms of Le Carré’s writing – the conversations of the CIA and MI6 operatives, their lingo and phraseology, are a perfect evocation of the author’s style, while Barley comes to the screen as almost the quintessential disillusioned middle-aged romantic: scruffy with a drink problem and a public school disdain for the prefects of the intelligence service.

The film’s other major positive is the central performance of Sean Connery. The former James Bond (then in the middle of a five-year purple patch of great roles which ran from The Name of the Rose to The Hunt for Red October) brilliantly plays against type as the dishevelled Barley, a man who feels like he has spent a lifetime circling failure and unreliability. Connery tones down his athletic physicality as an actor, playing Barley as a shuffling, hunched figure, often a step behind those around him. He’s also able to capture the romantic defiance behind Blair as well as a sadness and a self-loathing, his eyes showing years of shame at his own unreliability and the disappointments he has inflicted on people. It’s one of his least “Connery-like” performances, and a real demonstration of his willingness to stretch himself as an actor.

He’s well matched by some fine supporting performances. Pfeiffer is a very good actress who balances Katya’s vulnerability with a shrewd understanding of the compromises and dangers of the world she is in. Having said that, the chemistry between her and Connery doesn’t quite click into place during the course of the film. There are also good performances from James Fox and Roy Scheider as feuding intelligence boffins, and an eye-catching “love it or loath it” one from Ken Russell playing one of Le Carré’s quintessential campy, eccentric public-school intelligence operatives.

The film’s main weakness is that the actual story just isn’t quite interesting enough. The stakes never feel as high as they should be, and the unfolding of events seems unclear rather than carefully concealed from the audience. Despite the actors’ performances, Blair and Katya aren’t quite characters we can invest in enough and the momentum of the film too often gets bogged down in a reconstruction of intelligence agent squabbles. Schepisi films the Russian locations extremely well, but too often the camera lingers lovingly on a series of locations like a travelogue, slowing down the pace of the film as the film revels in its status as only the second Hollywood production allowed to film in Russia.

It’s an intelligent and faithful adaptation, but it doesn’t quite come to life. Stoppard’s script doesn’t carry enough narrative thrust and you simply don’t care enough about the fates of many of the characters. In many ways, a less faithful adaptation – such as the BBC’s recent production of The Night Manager – might well have made for a more compelling movie. As it is, although the film feels like an immersion into the author’s universe, it also feels like a dip into one of the less engaging and memorable offerings in his back catalogue. Along with the book’s strengths, it also carries across weaknesses. It’s satisfying enough and doesn’t outstay its welcome – but it also never really seizes the attention.