Spies like us: New films by David Hare and John le Carré show human side of the intelligence services

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The results are tantalising, says Geoffrey Macnab

British spooks are back on screen. Next month sees the release of Working Title's feature-film version of the John le Carré novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, with Gary Oldman as the MI6 officer George Smiley and Colin Firth as fellow spy Bill Haydon. Meanwhile, David Hare's first film as a director in two decades, the thriller Page Eight, will be shown on Sunday on BBC2.

Both films concentrate on the enemy within. One unfolds during the Cold War, the other during the ongoing fight against international terror, but both are as much about something rotten in the state of Britain as about external threats.

In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which is set in the 1970s and directed by Tomas Alfredson, Smiley's quest is to flush out a Moscow Centre "mole" who has been operating within the heart of British intelligence for over three decades.

The key charge in Page Eight is that a British Prime Minister (Ralph Fiennes) has hidden secrets from his own security services. As the long-serving MI5 officer Johnny Worricker (Bill Nighy) discovers, when an incriminating dossier falls into his hands, the Prime Minister had access to intelligence about potential British terrorists that might have saved British lives, and yet "he didn't tell anyone".

To viewers who remember Alec Guinness's celebrated performance as Smiley in the 1979 TV series of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the new film may seem like an impostor. Smiley, as described by le Carré and so brilliantly embodied by Guinness, is "small, podgy, at best middle-aged", a penguin-like figure with short legs and an ungainly gait who wears a black overcoat. That is a long way removed from the roles for which Oldman (who made his reputation playing livewire characters like Sid Vicious and Joe Orton) is known.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is also a departure for Working Title, which has enjoyed its most notable successes with the Bridget Jones films and Richard Curtis comedies. Whenever Working Title has strayed too far from middle England – as, for example, it did with Paul Greengrass's Iraq thriller Green Zone – box-office takings have plummeted. Nonetheless, the new Tinker Tailor has received le Carré's enthusiastic blessing.

The veteran author said: "The film, through my very personal prism, is a triumph. And if people write to me and say, 'How could you let this happen to poor Alec Guinness,' I shall reply that, if 'poor Alec' had witnessed Oldman's performance, he would have been the first to give it a standing ovation. It's not the film of the book. It's the film of the film, and to my eye a work of art in its own right. I'm very proud to have provided Alfredson with the material, but what he made of it is wonderfully his own."

Page Eight, befitting its subject matter, is a slippery and deceptive affair. Its characters may be drawn from the present day but they are not so different from the types who inhabit le Carre's Smiley novels: spies from public-school backgrounds who are well into middle age. On the one hand, Hare's film is a ripping yarn with a top-notch cast (Nighy, Michael Gambon, Judy Davis, Rachel Weisz, etc) and a hint of John Buchan and Ian Fleming, as well as of le Carré, about it. On the other, it is an intensely political drama, raking over how intelligence gathering has been utterly corrupted in the war on terror and arguing that moral boundaries have blurred as a result.

As one of Hare's characters complains: "There's so much intelligence, ceaseless intelligence, and there's so little time to consider it." When revelations of real value are unearthed, analysts are so swamped with other data that they either don't notice or don't take it seriously.

Page Eight suggests that the reason the Prime Minister kept the intelligence to himself is because of his slavish loyalty to his US allies. Hare is back on familiar turf. He and other writers and film-makers have been this way many times since the beginning of the war in Iraq. Americans (we hear again) have "prisoners all over the world who don't officially exist, on black sites, unknown sites". Information gleaned from these prisoners isn't shared fully with the British security forces. Nor is the fact that it has been obtained by torture. The Americans have been lying to MI5 and MI6 but so, in order to protect his allies, has the Prime Minister. That is what is at the bottom of page eight of the dossier: "Downing Street already knows about this."

The world Page Eight depicts is clearly fictional. The aggressive, close-cropped Prime Minister played by Fiennes bears little resemblance to Tony Blair or Gordon Brown. Bill Nighy's Waitrose bag-wielding MI5 officer may not be Daniel Craig material but he has a bit more spy-movie dash about him than Smiley does. An art-loving jazz aficionado, coming towards retirement, Worricker does not leap from rooftops, have fistfights with thugs or drive an Aston Martin. (He has a Saab.) Nonetheless, he is adept at spycraft: picking locks, photographing secret documents and losing the Special Branch officers sent to tail him. As attested by his many marriages and relationships, women like him too. Nighy excels as the sardonic but incorruptible hero, trying to outdo his boss and best friend Benedict Baron (Gambon) in sarcasm and deadpan humour.

Hare throws in plenty of stock thriller characters. Ewen Bremner plays a hardboiled journalist with close connections to the intelligence services. Weisz is an improbably glamorous peace campaigner who lives across the landing from Nighy, grieving the death of her peace-activist brother in the Middle East, at the hands of the Israelis. There are tremendous cameos from Saskia Reeves, as a tough-as-nails Home Secretary, and Judy Davis, in Cruella de Vil mode as a ruthless intelligence boss.

Despite his adherence to familiar spy-film conventions, Hare has offered tantalising hints that much of Page Eight is based on real events. Like the main characters in the film, he won't disclose his sources. However, he has claimed to have been briefed about what has been going on in Britain's "spook" community in the last decade.

"I know a little about what's been going on inside MI5 in the last 10 years," he said in an interview, earlier this summer. "Plainly, in the run-up to the Iraq war the intelligence agencies were being asked to come up with evidence which suited the Government's case. To its credit MI5, if I believe what I am told, refused to do that, whereas MI6 went along with it and came up with all the stuff that went into the dodgy dossiers."

In both Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Page Eight, the security forces are portrayed as expending much of their energy on spying on one another.

Audience demand for homegrown British spy stories does not show any sign of abating. The MI5-themed drama Spooks (into its 10th and final series) has been one of the BBC's most popular dramas in recent years. "So good it makes you want to be a spy," one critic enthused. The 23rd Bond film will be out on 26 October next year.

The spy genre is pulling in two directions. On the one hand there are muscular action dramas, starring the likes of Daniel Craig and Matt Damon. On the other there are spy movies like Tinker Tailor and Page Eight, playing up the human factor. Such films may seem to be about weighty political matters and ideological battles but their drama really hinges on personal relationships, whether between colleagues or between husbands and wives and parents and children. These films are about trust and deceptions. The bigger betrayals are always mirrored in the domestic sphere. Look, for example, at the constant references to the adultery committed by Smiley's wife in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

This is something that Hare makes clear in Page Eight, too. Nighy's MI5 officer may have fraught relationships with politicians and bosses but they are nothing like as complex as those he has with his ex-wife or his daughter. The daughter (Felicity Jones) is an artist who paints graphic and harrowing images of Guantanamo Bay-like torture victims. (Ironically, some of her work has found its way into the Government's art collection. One of her paintings hangs in the MI5 boardroom.) Father and daughter misinterpret one another's motives and fail (at least initially) to decode each other's feelings.

This human factor is what makes the spy genre so compelling and so durable. The Lives Of Others (2007), perhaps the best character-based spy film of recent times, hinges on the fact that the eavesdropping Stasi security captain feels an emotional bond with the playwright he is snooping on that transcends his political beliefs and his rigid sense of duty.

However, the human factor is also arguably what makes the spy movie ultimately unsatisfactory as a vehicle for polemic or whistleblowing. If Hare was hoping to draw attention in Page Eight to the misdeeds of British politicians or senior spooks, he hasn't really succeeded. The relationships and the adventure get in the way of the politics. In the end, as viewers, we're more interested in whether Nighy will escape from the heavies pursuing him in the multi-storey car park than we are in the way that the Prime Minister has misled his own security forces.

Hare delivers an enjoyable, well-crafted thriller along traditional lines. Whether there is anything in Page Eight that might have been of interest to the Chilcot Inquiry is another matter. As for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, audiences are likely to be so busy comparing Oldman with Alec Guinness and trying to work out the identity of the "mole" that they will not be overly concerned with any points the film-makers are trying to make about corruption and treachery at the heart of the British State.

'Page Eight' will screen on Sunday at 9pm on BBC2. 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' is released in cinemas on 16 September

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern