The Deadly Affair

Charles Dobbs on the phone

1966’s The Deadly Affair repeats the formula of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold – John Le Carré story, top British and European cast, London locations, great US director, ace British cinematographer, soundtrack by a big name – and if it isn’t quite up there with the 1965 film, it’s still one of the very best Le Carré adaptations. It takes Le Carré’s first novel, A Call for the Dead, slaps a less sombre, more bums-on-seats title on it and also renames Le Carré’s masterspy George Smiley, as Charles Dobbs (Paramount, who had made The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, “owned” the Smiley name). Though in all important respects this is … Read more


Hombre and Angel

If you’ve ever wanted to see a Western out of Bulgaria, Hombre is your chance. It’s a fascinating film, attempting to use the familiar narratives from the West as an allegory for pan-Balkan co-operation. If we don’t all get on, the idea runs, there’ll be a lot worse to deal with than a gunfight at the OK Corral. Whatever else it is or isn’t, it’s a very well cast film. Everyone here feels real, and also manages to exist as a character you might expect to encounter either around a camp fire in a Bulgarian forest in the 21st century or spooning up pork and beans in 19th-century Utah. There’s not too much … Read more

A Murder of Quality

Denholm Elliott as George Smiley

Written by John Le Carré, a master spy storyteller, and featuring a masterspy, George Smiley, you’d expect A Murder of Quality to be, well, a story about spying. In fact it’s a bare-bones whodunit with not a spook to be seen. Both Le Carré and Smiley are here essentially moonlighting. The grisly murder of a woman at a private school is what sets it off, retired George being called in by old agency chum Ailsa Brimley to look into it as a favour for her. Strictly off the books, hush hush etc. This is a murder pure and simple. One for the police. Smiley is there as an outsider with no official involvement. … Read more

Night of the Kings

Bakary Koné as Roman

When is a prison drama not a prison drama? When it’s Night of the Kings (La nuit des rois), a French-language drama from the Ivory Coast that starts and ends in a brutal jail and soars off in every direction in between. Philippe Lacôte’s film opens with a shot of the jungle. The camera pans up to reveal a vast building, the Maca prison, one run by its inmates, the governor will later remark to an underling. It’s a jungle out here and it’s going to be a jungle in there too, right? Right. But also very wrong. Into this pulullating mass of hyper-masculinity – so many shirtless male bodies, so many scowls – … Read more

The Little Drummer Girl

Charlie training with the Palestinians

Is the 1984 flop The Little Drummer Girl really a spy thriller, as it says on the tin, or an existential drama about a woman losing her mind because she believed in nothing to start with? Diane Keaton stars in this adaptation of a semi-successful John Le Carré novel (attempts have been made to re-appraise it since the author’s death), playing an actress recruited by the Israeli secret service to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist network. Le Carré (real name David Cornwell) based “Charlie” on his half sister, the actress Charlotte Cornwell, who around this time was suing a UK newspaper for suggesting her “bum is too big”. She won, on the grounds that … Read more

Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt)

Abbie and Ellie kiss

Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) is a breezy high-school comedy about the will they/won’t they romance between two gay schoolkids. Set in the here and now but also in the there and then, it tries to square a circle and gets most of the way there. Gay kids? Once upon a not so long ago that would have set the attack dogs of the media off on one of their jags but, though Australian writer/director Monica Zanetti struggled to raise the cash to get this adaptation of her successful play made, here it is, eventually, a testament to what the film is actually all about. Things have changed. Though battles are … Read more

Boys State

René Otero

Fascinating, sometimes grimly so, Boys State is a documentary about a Texas program designed to educate high schoolers in the intricacies and mechanisms of democracy. It’s been run by the American Legion since 1935 and claims to be a “week-long experiment in self-governance” during which young men run for office, get a team around themselves, organise into parties, committees and cabals. En route, the cream (or scum) rises to the top, and the sharp elbowed and quick-tongued win out over the more thoughtful and considered. They’re not an entirely self-selecting group. In early interviews conducted by Legion members in full uniform, it’s obvious what sort of “boy” is being sought – one whose … Read more

The Looking Glass War

Anthony Hopkins with Christopher Jones

The third of John Le Carré’s spy thrillers to be adapted for the big screen, 1970’s The Looking Glass War is an odd and pretty much entirely unsuccessful spy thriller that’s taken a big conceptual decision only for it not to pay off at all. The first two adaptations were the big success The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (Richard Burton starred) and the underrated The Deadly Game (a reworking of Le Carré’s novel Call for the Dead, with James Mason as a version of George Smiley). There’s no sign of Smiley here, though he was in this film’s original novel. That said, there is some justification for removing him since … Read more

The World to Come

Abigail and Tallie get close

Mona Fastvold’s second film, The World to Come, continues her tick-tocking exploration of timebomb relationships, much as did her first one, 2014’s The Sleepwalker. And like The Sleepwalker, this also toys with the viewer, delaying the explosive payoff until its moment has started to recede over the hill. Has Fastvold been watching Hungarian master miserablist Béla Tarr, I wondered. If so, it might explain the disengaged atmosphere. An early shot, of frontier couple Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Dyer (Casey Affleck) sitting down to eat a solitary boiled potato, was reminiscent of a scene in Tarr’s final film, 2011’s The Turin Horse, a drama so bleak that it dares you not to titter. Also … Read more


J3 is revealed

Here’s Archive, the debut by writer/director Gavin Rothery, who deserved better than for his film to slip between the cracks, which it did a bit thanks to the Covid restrictions. Instead of getting the big-screen release that was on the cards, it slunk out onto streaming months after it was due to be seen. Rothery’s CV is full of art department gigs. He worked with Duncan Jones on Moon and Archive at first looks like it might be operating in the same territory. Lone guy marooned somewhere, taking orders from a stern voice back at HQ, possibly going mad in the process. Except George (Theo James) isn’t in an off-world location, he’s in … Read more