Where To Start With... John Le Carré
If you needed any confirmation that spy films are a fascination for moviegoers, you need only look at the box office figures for Skyfall, which edged out Avatar in 2012 to become the UK's highest grossing film of all time. From Ian Fleming's James Bond to Len Deighton's Harry Palmer, spies on the big screen have been pulling in huge audiences for over 50 years now and the end of the Cold War seems to have done nothing to diminish our appetite for more. Even so, any spy would probably admit that the adventures of characters like James Bond are far removed from the often mundane reality of being a real life spy, and while authors like Fleming and Deighton have created compelling and much loved figureheads for the silver screen, when it comes to authenticity the author who most consistently captures the confusion and paranoia of what it's actually like to be a spy has to be John Le Carré.
Born David Cornwell, the man working under the pen name of John Le Carré spent several years working for MI5 and MI6 before publishing his first novel, Call For The Dead, in 1961, so he's a man who knows what he's talking about. By 1963 his third novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, had become a bestseller and Le Carré went on to write over 20 novels, many of which have been adapted for the big screen.
The latest of these is A Most Wanted Man, released on DVD and Blu-Ray next week (January 19th). Directed by Anton Corbijn, the man behind the superb Ian Curtis biopic Control, A Most Wanted Man stars the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his last roles before his death in 2014. Playing an agent for the security services in Germany, he and his colleagues take an interest in a Chechen-Russian muslim who, having endured some brutal torture, escapes and turns up in Hamburg's muslim community with the aim of claiming his late father's fortune. In typical Le Carré fashion, the security services become intrigued and suspicious; is this a torture victim, or a hardened extremist bent on revenge?
Corbijn's film twists and turns as they try to establish the man's true identity, leaving the viewer guessing and second-guessing in what is a pretty gripping thriller, largely thanks to the smart direction and writing, but also due to Hoffman's performance, which as brilliant as any he's turned in.
You can find the trailer below, but while you're waiting for the film to arrive next week, we've picked out five more that have been adapted from Le Carré's novels to get you in the mood...
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Probably Le Carré's most famous novel, the book has had not one but two screen adaptations, the latest being Thomas Alfredson's 2011 version starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley. When an operation in Hungary goes badly wrong, it transpires that there is a mole in the British secret services and Smiley is tasked with finding out which of the four men suspected is responsible for the failure of the Budapest operation. Also starring John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong, this is Le Carré as his best and Oldman delivers a superb performance in this taut thriller.
The Constant Gardener
Nominated for four Academy Awards, including a win for Rachel Weisz for Best Supporting Actress, Fernando Meirelles' 2005 film stars Ralph Fiennes as a widowed man trying to uncover a dark secret that lies behind his wife's murder, one that involves high levels of corporate corruption. Fiennes and Weisz are both equally compelling in this film that sees the widower travel three continents in search of the truth, risking his life to establish what really happened to his wife. This is highly recommended.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold
The novel that really launched Le Carré's career as a writer, Martin Ritt's 1965 adaptation came in the midst of the rise in James Bond's popularity and, because of this, it's probably the best example of the stark contrast in levels of realism between Le Carré's writing and that of his peers. The film stars Richard Burton as a spy who chooses not to retire but take another mission in East Germany, ostensibly to defect, but in reality to act as a double agent and spread disinformation. The story focusses on his struggle to come to terms with his part in the Cold War and to readjust from the desensitised operative he has become. If there's any film that captures the paranoia of what it's actually like to be a Cold War-era spy, this is it. It's a must-see.
The Tailor of Panama
Starring Pierce Brosnan as a wayward agent who is reassigned to Panama, where he coerces a tailor (Geoffrey Rush) into becoming a spy to help him retrieve information about the President's plans for the strategically important Panama Canal. However, the tailor, who claims to have worked formerly on London's prestigious Savile Row, is not all that he seems. What ensues is a twisting narrative where it's difficult to know who to believe, a hallmark of Le Carré's writing that's brilliantly carried in John Boorman's film.
The Deadly Affair
Sidney Lumet's brilliant 1966 film starts James Mason as Charles Dobbs, a security officer who finds himself embroiled in a shady web of deceit when a seemingly innocuous conversation with a foreign office employee leads the man to commit suicide, or at least that's the story. An anonymous letter surfaces, accusing the foreign office employee of being a communist spy and the British intelligence services seem only to happy to record the death as a suicide and sweep the incident under the rug, but Dodds is suspicious and begins to investigate. Nominated for four Academy Awards, though sadly winning none, Lumet's often forgotten film deserves to be revisited.