Tuesday, 6 September 2016

The bureau: outstanding. And a tribute to a master

In the Acknowledgements to his novel The Tailor of Panama, Le Carré included a charming nod to the masterpiece among tales about peddlers of false intelligence:

Without Graham Greene this book would never have come about. After Greene’s Our Man in Havana, the notion of an intelligence fabricator would not leave me alone.

This kind of link between one fine work and another is always a pleasure to meet. Intertextuality, we used to call it, in the days when I was a student of literary criticism, and hours of amusement it gave us to track it down.

That makes it all the more gratifying to see a TV series that in turn takes a bow to Le Carré. Especially so when it is imbued with the spirit of Le Carré’s spy novels at their best, by which I mean the ones about the Cold War or, to include The Little Drummer Girl, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What’s perhaps unusual about this Le Carré spirit, and indeed the tribute itself, is that the series is French. Indeed, it’s probably the best TV produced by the country for many years.

Le Carré is a French name, but the author behind it – David Cornwell – is as English as they come. On the other hand, The Bureau as the series is called in its English-subtitled release on Amazon, really is French – Le Bureau des Légendes in the original. It tackles the central themes of Le Carré’s best spy stories: deception, betrayal, even backfiring loyalty – and above all and at length, the labyrinth of conflicting imperatives and spiralling tension into which the double agent blunders.

The Bureau: remarkable filming, a fine story, great performances
In place of the Cold War, the series focuses on the Syrian Civil War and the battle against ISIS, keeping it right up to date.

It handles all its themes skillfully. Occasionally, it seems to drift into implausibility – “how could she have known that?” I found myself sometimes wondering, or “why would he have done that?” – only to present a perfectly rational explanation a few scenes later, when you learn a new piece of information about what lay behind the character’s behaviour.

Nor is there any lack of humour, even, on occasions, of the laugh-out-loud kind. I enjoyed the moment when a character described the immediate future in terms of an extended metaphor: a bumpy ride, turbulence ahead, hoping for a safe landing, but with the potential for a crash. Just as I was beginning to feel a little airsick, the woman he was talking to, looking slightly nauseous herself, asked whether they could perhaps continue the conversation without the aviation references.

Excellent performances from a star-studded cast only enhance the experience. Mathieu Kassovitz gives a mesmerising portrayal of the poker-faced spy who never shows the emotions that deeply affect him. It’s worth watching Sara Giraudeau going through her exhausting training as a spy, coping with the difficulties of living outside anything like a normal human existence, and above all, on the run and mastering the terror of being hunted. Jean-Pierre Darroussin is outstanding as the ageing spy chief who’s never been in the field himself and suspects his colleagues think less of him for it; he doubts his own qualities but realises that he’s right in suspecting the presence of a mole and has to track it down. But these are only the most remarkable performances by a cast none of whose members turns in a bad one.

At all times, The Bureau is gripping, tense, compelling viewing. Ideal for a series binge if you have the time and energy. With a storyline that holds your attention, makes you beg for more and never lets you down. 

And what’s particularly surprising is that it achieves all this with minimal violence. What little there is fits the plot perfectly and carries the story forward. It’s never gratuitous or out of place.

What about the tribute to Le Carré?

That, or rather they, come in season 2. The first takes the form of the spy chief coming to terms with his growing suspicion that there is a double agent at work in his organisation. He retreats into his office, relying on the assistance of only a small number of collaborators, sworn to secrecy. He has a list of names, one of whom must be the double. Feverishly, in isolation, and suspected by others, he sets to work to narrow down the list and find the rotten apple. Anyone who knows and loves Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy will recognise the parallel with Control working against the clock and wrecking his health as he tries to unmask a mole.

The second tribute to Le Carré is even clearer. Both seasons of the series use a curious but effective device: from time to time, we hear a voiceover from the protagonist, explaining what he has done and why he did it. A diary or a confession? There comes a moment when we see how he started on this narration and, in both seasons, there is enough time left to show us why. That takes us to a semi-conclusion, semi-cliffhanger for the next season. It’s a neat ploy and highly effective.

In season 2, the narration is in a letter to the protagonists daughter. Just as in A Perfect Spy the story is told through the letters Magnus Pym writes to his controller, his wife and to his son. Another attractive resonance between masterpieces.

Above all it underlies the way The Bureau itself fully lives up to its predecessor. Eric Rochant has given us an outstanding spy tale. And more than that, hes given us TV series creation at its best.

Well worth watching if you haven’t already seen it.

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