The Deadly Affair (1967) Google Play, YouTube
Based on le Carré’s first novel Call for the Dead, Sidney Lumet’s thriller doesn’t articulate the international intrigue of the author’s work as well as later adaptations, but it’s notable for how thoroughly it undercuts any fantastical notions of what it’s like to be a spy. Though rights issues kept the studio from using the name George Smiley, James Mason plays the same character as a dreary cuckold whose wife (Harriet Andersson) hates him and whose job satisfaction is hitting rock bottom. When a former Communist seems to kill himself the day after their pleasant meeting in a park, he suspects foul play, turning his attention to the late man’s widow (Simone Signoret), who doesn’t appear to be telling him the truth. Quincy Jones did the lively score.
The Russia House (1990) Stan
From the beginning, le Carré adaptations have always been an implicit rebuke to the James Bond series, which may have been part of their appeal to ex-Bonds like Sean Connery, who were given opportunities to summon gravitas that 007 didn’t require. Connery doesn’t play a spy by trade in The Russia House but an expatriate British book publisher who’s brought in by British intelligence to investigate three notebooks containing Russian military secrets. The cast is loaded with character actors like J.T. Walsh, John Mahoney, Klaus Maria Brandauer and a particularly witty James Fox, but it is Connery’s romantic chemistry with Michelle Pfeiffer, as a Russian feeding him information, that sets the film apart.
The Tailor of Panama (2001) Google Play, YouTube, Apple TV
A year before ending his own run as James Bond, Pierce Brosnan allowed himself and the series to be subtly lampooned in The Tailor of Panama, which supplies him with the same double entendres and ostentatious good looks, but undercuts his suave image to comical effect. Banished to Panama City for womanising and other indulgences, Brosnan’s British agent is supposed to keep the Panama Canal from falling into the wrong hands, but winds up neck deep in the city’s pervasive corruption. With a half-lovable scoundrel for a hero, director John Boorman levels a sharp critique of British and American intervention in other countries.
The Constant Gardener (2005) Amazon, Google Play, YouTube
For his follow-up to City of God, his electric treatment of organised crime in a Rio de Janeiro favela, director Fernando Meirelles looks again at the disadvantaged, but from the perspective of a mid-level British bureaucrat investigating Big Pharma’s exploitation of poor people in Africa. The flashback structure of The Constant Gardener covers the before and after of an activist (Rachel Weisz) found murdered in remote Kenya. Her husband (Ralph Fiennes), who works for the British High Commission, initially accepts the official explanation for her death, but as he pokes into the case further, he uncovers a plot by a pharmaceutical company to test an experimental drug on Africans at free treatment centres. The film is at once a widower’s rumination of a difficult marriage and an angry critique of first-world schemes in third-world nations.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) Foxtel on Demand, Binge
In the role of George Smiley, the le Carré protagonist immortalised on-screen by Alec Guinness, Gary Oldman gives a performance so thoroughly internalised that he nearly disappears into the film’s beige, smoky backdrops. As the film opens in the early 1970s, Smiley has spent a lifetime in British intelligence, but the death of a mentor (John Hurt) leads him into semi-retirement. He soon re-emerges as part of an effort to uncover a Soviet mole within MI6, which offers him a shot at redemption and a chance to summon his expertise at stamping out subtle threats in his midst. This version of Tinker, Tailor has trouble condensing its labyrinthine plot, but as a mood piece, it captures le Carré’s essence perfectly.
The Night Manager (2016) Amazon
For this six-part series, written by David Farr and directed by Susanne Bier, le Carré’s 1993 novel about the intrigue surrounding a luxurious hotel in Cairo has been updated to the year 2011, as protests rage against Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Tom Hiddleston stars as a hotel manager who coolly reassures panicked guests seeking the next plane out of the country, but his access to the “worst man in the world,” an arms dealer played by Hugh Laurie, brings him into a plot to infiltrate his inner circle. Adding to a triumvirate of excellent lead performances — all three won Emmys — Olivia Colman is the coolheaded task-force chief who serves as the manager’s handler.
The Little Drummer Girl (2018) Apple TV, Google Play
A director known for the glossy exuberance of Oldboy and The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook seemed like a counter-intuitive choice to unpack the internalised spy craft of a le Carré miniseries. But Park also specialises in the smooth orchestration of complicated plots and his stylistic brio pays off in both the show’s cosmopolitan flair and its tense set pieces. On the cusp of her breakthrough in Midsommar and Little Women the following year, Florence Pugh is terrific as a British actress in the late ’70s who’s recruited by a Mossad agent (Michael Shannon) to disrupt a Palestinian terrorist organisation. It’s the role of a lifetime, but it thrusts her into a world of danger and moral compromise.