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John le Carré: the spy who loved fiction

The 2010 International Festival of Films on Art (FIFA) in Montreal kicks off on March 18, featuring 230 films from 23 countries. Shortlisted from this group are a competitive selection of 43 films from 14 countries (including eight entries from Quebec). Buzzed films from the competitive group include Je M’Appelle Denis Gagnon, a documentary about the Quebec fashion designer who made quite an impression at Montreal Fashion Week; The Real World of Peter Gabriel, on the Genesis lead singer; and perhaps most intriguing, King of Spies: John le Carré, a documentary about the life’s work of a spy-turned-fiction writer.

John le Carré is one of the most celebrated spy fiction authors, with a career spanning the past 50 years. Our generation would recognize him as the author of The Constant Gardener, which led to an Academy Award-nominated film in 2005. However, le Carré is best known for his Cold War novels from the 1960s, most notably The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

Le Carré is a former agent for MI5 and MI6 (now known as the Secret Intelligence Service), but unfortunately that’s about as much detail as anyone can give you, as le Carré is unwilling to discuss his involvement in the British government. And rightfully so – as he says in the documentary, there are two reasons why he does not reveal his past: he would never allow himself to put anyone he knows in danger, and nobody would believe what he told them anyway. While it’s understandable that we don’t get to learn about le Carré’s experiences as an agent, it’s still disappointing. Instead, the documentary is chiefly about his writing career, which is almost inseparable from the politics of the Cold War. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold marks a trend in le Carré’s work: the jaded, overworked agent who is anything but a James Bond-esque hero. The key difference, as explained by a former KGB agent, is that Ian Fleming’s novels provided readers with a form of escapism, while le Carré’s showed the gritty reality of the Cold War.

The bulk of the documentary is made up of various interviews with le Carré, as well as with former politicians, ex-agents, and academics who discuss both le Carré’s legacy and the politics of the era. Le Carré is an interesting speaker: he is both charming and well-versed in the art of fiction. Some of the film’s most interesting moments are le Carré’s anecdotes about famous figures: when describing his love of subtext in literature, he quotes Alfred Hitchcock, who was once asked how long he could film a kissing scene, to which Hitchcock replied “20 to 25 minutes … but I would put a bomb under the bed first.”

The film incorporates more than just interviews, splicing in footage from films based on le Carré’s novels, and many scenes made up of grainy footage of England with the narrator reading passages from le Carré’s work. These scenes are far too numerous, and it feels as though the directors were trying to lengthen the film rather than strengthen it.

The portrait of le Carré that the documentary paints is a man who has seen it all. The viewer gets the impression that there’s an authenticity to le Carré’s writing, because he seems to have seen the world he represents on paper first-hand. From his youth at a boarding school, where there were “different types of beatings for different imaginary offences,” to his career during the Cold War, the viewer begins to wonder if the hardboiled, cynical secret agents that he creates are really just a reflection of himself.

As the Cold War came to a close, many expected that le Carré’s writing career would end with it. He has gone on to write many subsequent novels, however, after switching his focus from the Cold War to globalization, a concept he is very critical of. However, just because the war has ended does not mean that its effects are not felt today: “When you travel the world a bit, you’ll find that victims have a terribly long memory,” says le Carré, making the viewer once again question just how fictional the king of spies’ fiction really is.

King of Spies: John le Carré is playing as a part of FIFA, which runs from March 18 to 28 at nine theatres: the Bibliothèque Nationale du Québec, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, the National Film Board Cinema, the Cinémathèque québécoise, the Goethe-Institut, the Musée d’Art Contemporain, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Place des Arts and Concordia University. Tickets are $12 each and can be purchased on-line at or at any of the nine theatres on the day of the screening, one hour before the film begins.

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