Exhausting evening last night, ricocheting from Tinker Tailor at the local cinema to Downton Abbey on the box… which wasn’t, with the benefit of hindsight, necessarily the right way round. While Downton probably makes a better dessert than it does a starter, Tinker Tailor deserved an evening to itself, the better to mull over why, despite performances and cinematography that couldn’t be improved upon, I appreciated it more than I loved it.
Maybe it’s simply that it’s hard to love a spy… unless they’re the Spy Who Loved Me. I can admire a spy, however — and I hugely admired Gary Oldman’s (un)Smiley, a master-class in utterly compelling, un-showy acting. (I’m not sure — sadly — that anybody has ever won a Best Actor Academy Award for stillness, despite the fact that nothing better demonstrates the screen-acting craft, but please correct me if you can think of an example).
Ultimately, I suppose, I was in awe of a film that allowed its audience the time to think, that made every pause and pursed lip and exhaled puff of smoke — never mind the (few, but entirely unsparing) gunshots — count. And of course it looked perfect, and I was exceptionally grateful that this wasn’t edited by a Tourettes sufferer, a la Bourne or recent Bonds. But admiration isn’t the same as love. For love you need intimacy and by its very nature ‘Tinker Tailor’ keeps us at arms length. The result is intellectually satisfying (I can’t recall the last time I went to the cinema and felt quite so un-dumbed and grown-up) but it is also as emotionally chilly as its Cold War setting. Mind you, last night I had a brief discussion about the film with a Twitter friend who also saw it yesterday and apparently she cried at the end. I very rarely cry at drama (I save it for documentaries instead), but I do recognise that getting an audience to cry at the end of a film is, for many filmmakers, probably a box-ticked, though frankly I doubt it was very high on Tinker Tailor’s director Tomas Alfredson’s To Do list.
On the other hand, if Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes can get us reaching for the Kleenex he’d probably consider it a job well-done. But before I go there… had Tinker Tailor needed an even bigger cast of Alpha acting talent, I’m sure room could have been found around the table for Downton’s ruling triumvirate of Bonneville, Carter and Coyle, all of whom would’ve deployed the requisite combinations of tweed, RP, stiff upper lips and small firearms as apparently effortlessly as did Tinker’s Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, et al.
But in the event I love the fact that it’s not a man who is the link between Tinker and Downton — it’s a woman; specifically Laura Carmichael, better known to prime-timers as Lady Edith. Ms Carmichael doesn’t have a huge amount to do in Tinker — she’s a gel, after all — but she does it beautifully, making yearning, Moneypenny-ish eyes at Benedict Cumberbatch. Despite being a hottie in real life, Carmichael appears to be cornering the market in young, quivering-quietly-and-intensely-with-unrequited-whatever maiden-aunts-in-waiting. She’s already having a great career but by never having to rely on a Lady Mary/Sybil pout will, I predict, have a lengthy and glittering one.
Anyway, Downton returned last night with a 90-minute, post X-Factor Orgy of Exposition (well, it has been a year) and hooray for that. I have no truck with the inverted snobbery of the ‘oh-god-it’s-Upstairs-Downstairs-re-imagined-for-the-recession’ critical dismissals. In my opinion this is as good an unashamedly escapist popular/ist drama as we’re ever going to see on a Sunday night. It may — hell, it does — have a sentimental streak as wide as the WW1 trenches, it may pander shamelessly to our collective ‘we-know-our-places… you-lay-them-and-I’ll-sit’ class system — but it does it warmly, wittily and knowingly, and you can’t say fairer than that.
OK, I felt a little bit sorry for Spooks last night, trounced as it was in the ratings (4.6 million to Downton’s 9.3, for the record) — but not that sorry. Given the choice between a ‘Tinker Tailor Terrorist’ for the Tourette’s Generation v Titanic-Set-In-A-Castle, then My Heart Will Go (On) To Downton.