It’s not every writer who gets a film made about them, let alone by legendary documentarian Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line). But then, not every novelist has had the cultural impact of bestselling espionage novelist John le Carré – real name David Cornwell – one-time spy and full-time cartographer of the Cold War’s shadowiest nooks and crannies.
Before his death in 2020, the man behind ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, ‘The Constant Gardener’ and ‘The Night Manager’ – and, indirectly, some of the greatest TV thrillers ever made – subjected himself to a series of interviews by the American filmmaker. On the table is, well, everything, as this formerly elusive man opens up about his disillusionment with the stuffy complacency of the British establishment, childhood abandonment, the cloak-and-dagger business of spycraft, and the imprint left by his roguish conman dad.
With le Carré at one end of a grand table in an even grander library and Morris off-camera, there’s a delicious sense of two expert interrogators jousting, occasionally taking pause to explore the very nature of their conversation. Is Morris probing in the right areas? Can he win the trust of a man who knows all the tricks for extracting info from unwilling subjects?
Happily, this subject is here to talk. Like Morris’s The Fog of War, in which former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara took himself to task for the mistakes of the Vietnam War, The Pigeon Tunnel is a soul-searching confessional as much as a look back at a fascinating, restless and complicated life.
The theme of betrayal is ever-present, and The Pigeon Tunnel (the name of le Carré’s memoir and itself inspired by a traumatic childhood memory) offers an acutely emotional portrait of a damaging childhood’s long-term toll. At times, it feels like therapy.
It’s as much a confessional as a look back over a fascinating and complicated life
But there’s plenty of Boy’s Own spy stuff here, too. Morris makes smart use of old photos and clips from the many screen adaptations of le Carré’s work to illustrate the man’s recollections. Speaking most eloquently for his disenchantment in the 1960s is Richard Burton’s jaundiced agent in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold – his breakthrough bestseller in 1963, and the bleakest of those stories – as well as Alec Guinness’s spymaster, George Smiley, in ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’. Le Carré admits that Smiley was based on an idealised father figure. (If you haven’t read the book or seen the masterful BBC Tinker Tailor, look out for a colossal spoiler.)
And what Morris provides in visual flair – there’s fractured framing and mirrors galore to reflect the off-kilter nature of this secret world – le Carré adds in wit and verbal dexterity. Memories of Kim Philby, MI6’s communist mole and probably Britain’s most notorious traitor, bring out his sharpest turns of phrase. ‘When I wrote “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” it was Philby’s murky lamp that lit my path,’ he recalls, noting dryly that: ‘If you’d given him your cat to look after, he would have betrayed the cat.’
The death of le Carré feels like the end of an era. The Pigeon Tunnel is its enthralling epitaph.
In UK cinemas and on Apple TV+ now.