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 the action didn’t centre on him or his chaps at the “Circus”.

Plotwise, it’s a simple one. The Soviets are up to something behind the Iron Curtain, a new missile, maybe, and London wants to know what’s going on. So they recruit a German-speaking Polish would-be defector to go behind enemy lines and report back. And that’s what he does.

A lavishly made, good-looking film is what we get as a result, shot in the UK and “Europe” (as the credits coyly tell us, hoping we’ll mistake Spain for somewhere in the Eastern bloc) in the last days of US-financed films being made in the UK before the plug was pulled in the early 1970s.

It’s a great cast – Ralph Richardson and Anthony Hopkins most notably, but full of quality names, like Anna Massey, Timothy West and Ray McAnally. Hopkins fans might be surprised at how massively underused he is. True, this was only his fourth feature film, but he was hot off The Lion in Winter and you’d have expected more than a flunkey role, which is pretty much all he’s been thrown here.

Carrying the film is Christopher Jones, a handsome leading man who was having his flash in the pan when he got cast as the lead, Preiser, the defector-turned-rookie-agent. A couple of years on from Bonnie and Clyde – the film that shook up old Hollywood – it’s obvious that the producers have decided to gamble all on Preiser’s long hair and snake hips and go for the youth vote. Jones gets top billing, the likes of Richardson and Hopkins hold his coat and John Le Carré is largely left out in the cold.

Preiser struggles with his captors
Maybe the Warren Beatty hair and shades weren’t such a great idea

Sure, there are still glimpses to be had of Le Carré. Spying isn’t glamorous, it’s bureaucratic, a case of protocols and following the rules. There is spycraft and it’s of a very practical Le Carré-ish sort – messages hidden in toothpaste tubes, the correct way to disable a tripwire etc. No James Bond stuff.

That said, the understanding here seems to be that Preiser could eventually become a James Bond, that’s the way the whole movie tilts. He’s a master of several languages, resourceful, handy in a fight and insanely attractive to women. Look at the way the two women in his thrall are credited – Pia Degermark is The Girl, Susan George is simply The Girl in London (a year later she’d be starring in Straw Dogs with Dustin Hoffman).

It’s easy to blame Jones for the film’s shortcomings and he wasn’t the easiest to work with, apparenty, Hopkins in particular having complained about his attitude preceding his talent. But it’s the writing of Preiser’s character that makes no sense. Didn’t British spying have an agent who could speak German? Wasn’t there a spy of theirs over there already? They’re only asking Preiser to confirm that it’s a rocket, after all. And isn’t someone in hipster shades and with boutique Warren Beatty/Scott Walker hair going to stand out in concrete-grey Eastern Bloc Europe?

Where’s the jeopardy, where’s the intrigue? Having gutted the novel and repurposed it as a lure, using a countercultural (to studio suits, anyway) himbo as its bait, there’s not much actual meat left, which forces director Frank Pierson into some obvious time-wasting manoeuvres. Scenes that are too long. Tracking shots of vehicles crossing the countryside. And so on.

The foolishness of the decision to repurpose Le Carré this way becomes most obvious in the final scenes, where old-school perfidy and the dangerous aloofness of British spymasters re-assert themselves and, whaddya know, the film crackles into life before flopping into the arms of the end credits.

In sum, nicely made, well cast, but a bizarre film. Blame the screenplay writer (Pierson) if you must but really this goes all the way to the top. A John Le Carré spy thriller with nearly all of the Le Carré removed, it makes no sense. It would be almost another 15 years before Le Carré and the movies would meet again, in 1984’s The Little Drummer Girl. But that’s another story.

The Looking Glass War – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Father

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins

There’s a very watchable YouTube video in which, playing the publicity game, Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster discuss his most recent film, The Father, hers, The Mauritanian, and in between share a few memories of The Silence of the Lambs, among other things. During the half hour Zoom call Foster asks Hopkins, in so many words, about his “process”, how he approached his character in The Father, what preparation he did.

“None… really,” says Hopkins, blowing what’s left of Method acting out of the water with a couple of words. They’re even more impressive once you’ve seen the film, which is not an easy watch, be warned, unless you’re the sort who cheers along to the sight of one man at the end of his life losing everything he has thanks to memory loss, dementia, Alzheimer’s… it’s never exactly specified.

There have been films on the subject before, and they tend to yank great performances out of people. Julie Christie in Away from Her and Julianne Moore in Still Alice spring to mind. But they were both younger people. Hopkins is now in his 80s. Losing your marbles is one of the daily worries for people of his age – “being an old guy now I was able to easily fall into it” he half-jokingly puts it in the Zoom call.

It’s a gruesome, harrowing, awful fate and the brilliance of the script (adapted from Florian Zeller’s play by Christopher Hampton) is to put us right inside the mind of the person falling to bits. He’s become the camera, in essence. His daughter, Anne, is played by Olivia Colman one minute. Then the next she’s played by Olivia Williams. One minute the new carer – the latest in a long line – looks like Imogen Poots, the next it’s Olivia Williams again.

It’s confusing and, of course, it’s meant to be. That’s what he’s experiencing. Where does Anthony (as his character is called) live? Is it in his splendid mansion flat, or does he now live in his daughter’s place? The venue switches, abruptly. Why does Mark Gatiss keep turning up, a supercilious sneer (no one does it better) on his face, to bully the old guy? Is Rufus Sewell a son, a son-in-law, some other relation? Why is it chicken for dinner every night? Is Anthony’s doctor’s surgery really situated in the same building as his place, or his daughter’s place, or wherever he lives?

interviewing the new carer
Imogen Poots as the latest carer

And Anthony’s obsession with his watch. He’s mislaid it. Again. He must have it. It’s of prime importance. It’s never stated baldly, nothing is, but time is now exceedingly precious to Anthony, that much he does still know. And the watch, at least, is in his control.

If forgetting is awful, The Father’s other grim observation is that it brings with it another danger – suddenly remembering again, as Anthony does when, in a sudden moment of near clarity, he recalls his other daughter, the one who died. That’s why she never comes to visit.

It’s a film with awards-bait written all over it. Everyone in it is good, Williams, Colman and Poots particularly, but it’s Hopkins’s show and he gets to run the full gamut of emotions, from booming fury (no one better at that than Hopkins), to flirting boyishly with his new carer (Poots), to abject whimpering misery, crying on a nurse’s shoulder for his mummy.

Hampton (or Zeller, not sure which) has written Hopkins’s lines to a semi-theatrical rhythm, which suits his delivery brilliantly. There’s also the script’s occasional theatrical tendency for one actor to reiterate what another has just said – I have no idea why theatre does this – but then, like Michael Haneke’s Amour (a close cousin), this is a stagey film, set largely in the confines of several rooms.

The “Kafka problem” – how to tell the reader/audience that the unreliable narrator is unreliable without being ham-fisted about it – has been sidestepped thanks to the age of the central character. Dementia and therefore unreliability go with the territory.

“I feel like I”m losing all my leaves,” weeps the distraught Anthony at the end of what has been a powerful drama offering little in the way of comfort. I wanted to stop watching and at the same time couldn’t.

The Father – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Lion in Winter

Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Anthony Hopkins as Richard the Lionheart in The Lion in Winter




A movie for every day of the year – a good one



03 September



Richard I of England crowned at Westminster, 1189

On this day in 1189 one of the most famous English kings was crowned in Westminster Abbey in London. Known as the Lionheart, because of his great courage in battle, he is often viewed romantically, especially if seen through the prism of the Robin Hood stories, in which his half brother John always gets the bad guy role and Richard is the paragon of virtue. Richard spoke French, not English (he was also the Duke of Normandy, Aquitaine, Nantes, Anjou, Gascony and so on – the idea of monarchy and nation being coterminous is something Richard wouldn’t have understood), he spent only six months of his reign in England, and while there initiated a great pogrom against the Jews. After which, ironically, he headed off on the Third Crusade to expel Saladin the Muslim from Jerusalem. No lover of England – “I would have sold London if I could find a buyer” – he was reputed to have had a homosexual affair with Philip II of France. Not quite the figure you meet in the movies then.



The Lion in Winter (1968, dir: Anthony Harvey)

This was only director Anthony Harvey’s second film, after a career as an editor (for Kubrick on Lolita and Dr Strangelove, among others). And what a theatrical beast it is – a literate costume drama focusing on 50-year-old Henry II’s decision-making over who was to succeed him. The candidates are oldest but faintly idiot son John (Nigel Terry), warlike Richard (Anthony Hopkins) and gentle Geoffrey (John Castle). To oil the wheels he’s released his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn), from house arrest where she’s been languishing for ten years – he’s that kind of a guy. Meanwhile Philip II of France (Timothy Dalton) is complicating matters, wondering just which of the three lads is going to become king, so he can strategically marry his sister off to the lucky winner. But never mind the plot, look at those names. I forgot to mention that it’s Peter O’Toole playing Henry II, putting in a burning, intelligent performance that should have won him an Oscar (Hepburn did win one). Adding further heft is John Barry’s typically plaintive score (medieval 007 – it’s fantastic) and the cinematography is by Douglas Slocombe (everything from the Lavender Hill Mob and The Italian Job to Raiders of the Lost Ark).



Why Watch?

  • Hopkins, Hepburn, O’Toole – enough said
  • Like A Man for All Seasons, an unapologetically stagy drama
  • A rare example of a costume drama with great box office
  • Epic on almost every level



© Steve Morrissey 2013



The Lion in Winter – at Amazon






Julianne Moore and Anthony Hopkins in Hannibal

This may not be the best film out this week, but it is the one that is shouting loudest. Who doesn’t want to see Anthony Hopkins return to the role of Hannibal the Cannibal after several years of haggling over his fee, which includes an agreement to make one more film featuring everyone’s favourite cultured cannibal?

Hannibal’s plot sees Hopkins’s Dr Lecter returning to the USA, having been lured back from Italy by an elaborate hoax cooked up by Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), a former victim of Lecter’s, who has survived a fiendish munching and is now using Agent Clarice Starling as bait to get payback.

The plot is familiar cat v mouse stuff, but the big question is what sort of sequel do we have here – the useful continuation of a story that left us all dangling last time out, or something that’s been contrived by the back office?

Hopkins, one of the world’s most compelling screen presences, gives a strong hint early on, megaphoning in a performance of utter self-parody, suggesting that this is a smash-and-grab job. Everyone else follows suit with the overacting, there being no such thing as the Silence of the Hams. Indeed Gary Oldman’s performances is so ridiculous that he’s taken out an insurance policy – he’s disguised beyond recognisability. And taking over from the very wise Jodie Foster as Clarice-s-s-s-s is Julianne Moore, who is required via facial gesture to suggest that she is simultaneously attracted to and disgusted by a man who eats people.

In the director’s chair, Ridley Scott has nothing new to say and so instead lays on all the clichés he can remember from his days directing adverts – slo-mo fans, rooms full of mist, cars gracefully swooshing across bridges.

On the upside, it does all look pretty nice thanks to DP John Mathieson, particularly in Italy where the Florentine plazas and likes of Giancarlo Giannini and Francesca Neri remind us how timelessly cool Italy is. And butchery fans will be delighted with the variety of viscera, organs and offal on offer, all of it served up with an insouciant grin and a raised eyebrow. Ray Liotta, ooh dear. I’ll say no more.

© Steve Morrissey 2001


 Hannibal – at Amazon

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Rosamund PIke and Ryan Gosling




Anthony Hopkins plays the cat to Ryan Gosling’s mouse in this glossy thriller from Gregory Hoblit, whose CV (including 1996’s Primal Fear and 2002’s Hart’s War) demonstrates he’s a slick journeyman.

Hopkins is the wealthy Irish-American engineer who’s flagrantly killed his wife but has so arranged things that the case against him appears to be falling apart in the courtroom, in spite of the fact he was found with the weapon in his hand and has fessed up. Can public prosecutor Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling) nail him?

The film is more a howdunit than a whodunit, and ingenious enough, though Fracture does come with its own faultlines. There’s simply not enough Hopkins, and not enough wisdom at the writing/directing end of the production to spot that the scenes between Gosling and Hopkins are what makes the film tick (in spite of the fact that Hopkins has decided his character is some faint relation of Hannibal Lecter).

And then there’s the decision to drag in Rosamund Pike to play footsie with Gosling in a sexy-siren subplot. Right girl, wrong film.


© Steve Morrissey 2007


Fracture – watch it/buy it at Amazon