John Le Carré Movie Adaptations Ranked, 2021

Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

There is a lot of John Le Carré out there. The author wrote prodigiously, starting while he was still working as a spy for MI5 and MI6 in the late 1950s and only really stopped when he died, in December 2020. There are nine novels featuring his most famous creation, the retired master spy George Smiley, and another 17 or so (depending on how you count) other novels, plus short stories, essays, memoirs, articles written for newspapers (denouncing the war in Iraq, for instance) and screenplays (always adaptations of his own novels).

But there’s no getting round it, if you want a John Le Carré experience, the movies are probably the worst way to get one. The books are by far the best, because they give Le Carré space to lay out his worldview and spin his intricate webs. For the same reason – space – the TV miniseries also works well, with 1979’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring Alec Guinness, probably unbeatable as the definitive screen Le Carré, though there’s also a lot to be said for 2016’s The Night Manager, starring Tom Hiddleston. After TV, the audio versions are the way to go, particularly the BBC’s excellent The Complete Smiley, featuring Simon Russell Beale as a very Alec Guinness-tinged George Smiley.

And after all that, the film versions. Le Carré is all about intricate plotting and texture, and the two-hours-ish running times of most big- or small-screen movies simply isn’t enough for the magic to exert itself. However, some pull it off, others don’t.

For the purposes of this rundown I’m including all the standalone Le Carrés, whether made for cinema or TV. They’re a mixed bunch, ranging from the exceptional to the diabolical.

I’ve watched them all (bar one) and here’s how I rank them, from worst to best, and why.

The End of the Line

A BBC standalone Le Carré made in 1970 as part of the Armchair Theatre TV strand. The Germans would remake it three years later as Endstation – both are two-handers about a clergyman and an older gent sharing a train carriage on a journey from Edinburgh to London. Both men are spies but neither is saying so. Ian Holm and Robert Harris take the leads in the British version, Hans Schweikart and Peter Striebeck in the German one. I’ve seen neither, so won’t comment.

The Little Drummer Girl

Like Florence Pugh, decades later in the TV adaptation, Diane Keaton was undone in 1984 by a confusing story about an actress being recruited by the Israeli secret service to undermine the Palestinian cause she so vehemently champions. How? Why? It’s probably best not to ask. Le Carré has tied himself in knots trying (and failing) to work his Cold War modus operandi into a new theatre of operations, the Middle East. It’s nicely, unfussily directed, by George Roy Hill, and there’s a chance to see a relatively restrained Klaus Kinski do his thing, as an Israeli version of George Smiley.

A Murder of Quality

George Smiley moonlights as a private detective in a straightforward 1991 TV movie whodunit that looks as if it’s made for Sunday evening audiences in need of reassurance. A young Christian Bale joins troupers like Glenda Jackson, Joss Ackland and Billie Whitelaw and though it’s a bland and unsurprising Le Carré, Denholm Elliott does manage to cut through as Smiley – lighter and fruitier than Alec Guinness’s, in a tale that all comes down to the fine distinctions between various castes of hidebound Brits.

The Looking Glass War

Ralph Richardson and Anthony Hopkins turn up in this 1970 Le Carré adaptation but it’s the relatively obscure Christopher Jones who’s the star, as the handsome sailor recruited to go behind the Iron Curtain to winkle out secrets. Jones is fine, even though his long-haired, Warren Beatty-esque character is patently absurd, a sign that the film is playing to the countercultural youth of the day, a decision which kills any chance of the film being a success.

A Most Wanted Man

John Le Carré’s stories are often about the dull plod of everyday spying. A film’s problem is to render that on the screen and yet keep some excitement there. Director Anton Corbijn drenches his 2014 Le Carré outing with stylistic flourishes similar to the ones he brought to The American – this is a very cool film – and he has a cast of spectacular international dimension (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Nina Hoss, Daniel Brühl, Rainer Bock, Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe). But in the same way that Le Carré’s novels often struggled in the post 9/11 world, Corbijn struggles here in his attempt to inject a spark into a film that is in most other respects brilliant.

The Tailor of Panama

A real mix of the fine and the not so much in this 2001 adaptation of Le Carré’s excursion into Graham Greene territory – a central America full of sweaty generals and downmarket spies. Pierce Brosnan – between 1999’s The World Is Not Enough and 2002’s Die Another Day – shows there’s more than one spy in his acting arsenal, and the rest of the cast is genuinely interesting and includes Geoffrey Rush, the largely superfluous Jamie Lee Curtis and playwright Harold Pinter (in a rare screen role). As for Brendan Gleeson as a Panamanian freedom fighter – not his finest hour.

Naomie Harris and Ewan McGregor in Our Kind of Traitor
Naomie Harris and Ewan McGregor in Our Kind of Traitor

Our Kind of Traitor

Blameless prof Ewan McGregor and lawyer wife Naomie Harris get caught up in the money-laundering machinations of Russian oligarch Stellan Skarsgård in Marrakech in a textbook “Le Carré on the big screen” movie. It looks great, it’s sexy enough and the cast (including the excellent Damian Lewis) is great. With McGregor once rumoured as “the next James Bond” and with Harris (the current Miss Moneypenny) in the cast, it’s clearly aiming for a bit of 007 lustre. But there just isn’t enough air in there to let Le Carré’s textures interweave and so the full weight of the betrayal/loyalty theme is never quite felt.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

What played out over nearly 400 pages in print and nearly five hours on the TV suffers from being condensed to the point where the intricacies of what is surely John Le Carré’s most finely plotted story start to get lost. Still, there’s always Tomas Alfredson’s direction to admire, and the sheer 1970s look of the 2011 movie is probably unsurpassed – reel-to-reel tape recorders, nicotine-coloured ceilings, the full analogue world. Tom Hardy’s 21st-century speech patterns are a problem, but it’s a dependable cast – John Hurt, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch.

The Russia House

For this doubter, both Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer are surprisingly effective in this 1990 adaptation whose USP was that it was shot in Moscow as Gorbachev’s Glasnost made it possible for lickspittle running dogs of capitalism to film there for the first time in decades. Connery is a tweedy, boozy publisher recruited by the British secret service, Pfeiffer the Russian he’s targeting. It packs a lot in, and director Fred Schepisi sometimes forgets that he’s making a spy thriller. But it’s a looker, in every sense.

The Constant Gardener

This 2005 adaptation of Le Carré’s “Big Pharma” novel still bears all the hallmarks of his spying oeuvre – duplicity, grinding bureaucracy, the personal cost of loyalty to an idea – and features a methodical, very Le Carré character at its centre. Ralph Fiennes plays the plodding diplomat kicked into life by the death of his activist wife (Rachel Weisz) in an Africa where Aids and corporate colonialism stalk the continent.

The Deadly Affair

Paramount owned the name George Smiley and so James Mason goes by Charles Dobbs in this excellent 1967 adaptation of Le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead. It’s directed at pace by Sidney Lumet, is photographed in appropriately stygian gloom by the great Freddie Young and its superb cast includes Simone Signoret, Harriet Anderson, Harry Andrews and Maximilian Schell.

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

The first and the best of the Le Carré adaptations, largely because it sticks closely to what Le Carré was all about – compromised people in compromised situations. Richard Burton’s performance – as a drunk and broken man given another chance at redemption by playing a “defecting” spy sowing misinformation in East Berlin – is a great one, and of a piece with director Martin Ritt’s film making spying look about as unglamorous as it could get.

Almost all the screen Le Carré adaptations can be found on this Amazon page

Highly recommended: The Complete George Smiley radio dramas – also at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

12 January 2015-01-12

Tomer Sisley and Lizzie Brocheré in Sleepless Night

Home entertainment releases in the UK this week

Sleepless Night (Icon, cert 15)

A great French chase thriller set almost entirely inside a nightclub. All the cops are bent, there are a lot of bad guys, and they’re the boiled-in-piss sort (pockmarked Birol Ünel is one of them, if that means anything to you – it should). Tomer Sisley is lead cop – crooked as you like, though there’s far worse than him – and the action kicks off after he heists a big bag of cocaine off the bad guys and hides it in the false ceiling above the gents toilets. When he goes back to get it, a bad guy having by now kidnapped his son in return, it’s not there. Another cop (Lizzie Brocheré), possibly the only clean whistle we’ll see in the whole film, has re-heisted it, and it is now sitting in the false ceiling above the ladies toilets. Sisley, you might remember, played the lead in Largo Winch, which was a glam, slightly too insistent James Bond wannabe, and is great here as an urgent, empathetic point-and-shoot bad-guy detective. But what really sets Sleepless Night apart is the way it mixes beautifully choreographed action (the fight in the kitchen is epic) with breathless plot, while director Frédéric Jardin (of the excellent TV series Spiral aka Engrenages) works up the geography of this big club (dancefloor, bar, restaurant, kitchen, pool room, gaming tables and more) so we’re able to follow Sisley about as he tries to free his son, find the cocaine, kill the bad guys and avoid being killed himself. Think The 39 Steps in a confined space and you’re about there.

Sleepless Night – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Night Moves (Soda, cert 15)

Kelly (Meek’s Cutoff) Reichardt’s film is actually two films in one, and she knows it. Film one follows a trio of organic lentil-munchers (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard) as they plan and carry out a nocturnal operation that will take them over the line from activism into terrorism. It is a superb piece of tick-tock procedural directing by Reichardt, who takes time to paint the locale (a bucolic farm and environs) and her characters – Eisenberg inscrutable but vulnerable, Fanning idealistic and possibly a bit dim, Sarsgaard hovering (as so often) on the edge of sleaze – before inserting them into their operation, which is buttock-clenchingly tense. But then there’s the aftermath, as each character absorbs the moral implications of what’s just gone down and the police spotlight sweeps ever closer. Having taken us to the heights in part one, Reichardt now has to construct and operate an entirely different machine in part two, from scratch. She makes this double-arc work, and even has the confidence to include a couple of set pieces that are clearly inspired by Hitchcock. Which is appropriate because if there’s anything Hitchcock understood as well as tension (which is what part one of this film is about), it’s paranoia (part two’s subject matter). And if you’re suspecting that this paints Fanning as some sort of vulnerable/exotic Hitchcock blonde, well there’s another little game that Reichardt is playing.

Night Moves – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

The Rover (E One, cert 15)

David Michôd’s follow-up to his amazing debut, Animal Kingdom, is pretty much Rain Man crossed with the 1971 Aussie classic Wake in Fright plus hints of Mad Max, in other words a road movie pitching a mismatched duo into a world of extreme masculinity in a post-apocalyptic Australian Outback. Robert Pattinson is in “something to prove” mode as the congenitally stupid partner to Guy Pearce, a tough guy chasing the bruisers who stole his car and are now haring off across the desert in it. What’s in the car? A big McGuffin, never quite established strongly enough up front to hold the film together, if truth be told. However, The Rover does consist of individually powerful scenes, and it’s fabulously lensed, pungently scored and viscerally acted (though Pattinson’s eyes look always like a thinking man’s), with that great “yeh, and?” attitude that marks out so many excellent Aussie thrillers – Chopper, Snowtown, Mystery Road. But Animal Kingdom it isn’t.

The Rover – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Wakolda (Peccadillo, cert 12)

Since every bit of publicity about this film (also known as The German Doctor) tells us that it is about escaped Nazi doctor Josef Mengele (aka the Angel of Death) befriending a hotel-owning Argentinian family in the early 1960s, I’m going to say it too. However, the film itself is terribly reticent about telling us this fact, though it’s obvious from the time, the place, the setting (the expat German community that flourished in Argentina even before Hitler’s rise, which is why so many Nazis sought refuge there), that this methodical man (played with tamped-down panache by Alex Brendemühl) with a keen interest in the development of twins (Mengele’s gruesome specialty) is someone with a shady past. The entire film is like this: not so much telling us the story as letting us glean it from a glimpsed fact here, a look there. It’s a fascinating exercise in supercool film-making which entirely matches the clean, almost alpine setting, and writer/director Lucía Puenzo clearly doesn’t want to let it become a stranger-danger thriller, even as the good doctor starts injecting the family’s stunted daughter with growth hormones. Or a detective thriller, as Nora (Elena Roger), the local school’s very Jewish-looking archivist starts raking over his past. It might be too oblique for some, and personally I’d have liked a bit more thriller. Or maybe one day Puenzo will do a cool mash-up of The Odessa File and The Boys from Brazil.

Wakolda aka The German Doctor – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

A Most Wanted Man (E One, cert 15)

Anton Corbijn directed The American, the meta-spy thriller starring George Clooney. A Wanted Man looks like his attempt at something far less cerebral, a Cold War spy caper, except that instead of Soviets and safe houses, it’s concerned with Islamists and the “charities” they use as fronts to finance terrorism. I also saw the film as Corbijn’s attempt to get right what 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy got wrong. And, proving he’s got just as much of an eye for great 1970s interior design as Tinker Tailor director Tomas Alfredson, Corbijn lays on the tasty G Plan visuals as he introduces his team – Philip Seymour Hoffman as the German spymaster, Willem Dafoe as a crepuscular banker, Robin Wright as the duplicitous CIA wonk, Grigoriy Dobrygin as the Islamist in a hurry and Rachel McAdams as the honeytrap he’s potentially going to get stuck in. The original story is by John Le Carre, and it’s full of typical Le Carre observations about the sheer plodding dullness and bureaucratic nightmarishness of spying. Sadly, it’s a second-rate Le Carre story which lacks the intriguing spark necessary to offset all that paperwork. And though all concerned are at the top of their game – this is Hoffman’s filmic swansong too – there’s really nothing that can be done about that.

A Most Wanted Man – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Dinosaur 13 (Dogwoof, cert PG)

In 1990 a team of idealist fossil hunters found a remarkably well preserved Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in Dakota and set about constructing a local museum to exhibit it. But hang on, who actually owns the beast? Is it them, because they found it? The US government, because they own everything? The guy whose land it was found on, even though he sold the find to the palaeontologists? Or the Indian tribe of which he is a member? This documentary follows with admirable detail the wrangle over the bones, though it’s slightly disingenuous about the intrepid gang of diggers, ultimately a private outfit that’s got itself into the mother of all contractual snafus – though you wouldn’t doubt for a minute the members’ emotional commitment. As such it’s a more fascinating film about the legal process than it is about dinosaurs. Caveat emptor.

Dinosaur 13 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Before I Go to Sleep (StudioCanal, cert 15)

A woman (Nicole Kidman) with amnesia wakes up every day with her recent memories entirely missing. There are two men in her life – her husband (Colin Firth) and her doctor (Mark Strong). The former is a very caring man, though why someone this aware of her condition would kiss a woman who doesn’t recognise him so fulsomely first thing in the day is bewildering, to us and to her, while the doctor appears to be treating his patient without the knowledge of the woman’s husband. What, exactly, is going on? A Barbara Stanwyck “woman in peril” thriller is the answer, though director Rowan Joffe is convinced he’s not making a pacey and urgent B movie but a film of tone and prestige. This means Before I Go to Sleep moves slower than it should, and Joffe moves the camera about (as he did in Brighton Rock) in an unnecessary “filmic” way (there’s a Kubrickian wide-angle corridor shot at one point, for instance). He does this to show we’re in the hands of a man who knows his stuff, seemingly unaware that in making a point about himself he’s unmaking the mood of his film (see also Brighton Rock).

Before I Go to Sleep – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2015