When a onetime non-public detective sits right down to query a former spy and confessed efficiency artist, you may count on some verbal fisticuffs, a little bit of bobbing and weaving or defensive prickliness. And when the interlocutor is the filmmaker Errol Morris and his topic is David Cornwell, a.ok.a the chic fabulist John le Carré (who died in 2020), these expectations solely intensify.
But “The Pigeon Tunnel,” a four-day dialog Morris recorded in 2019 (and tailored from Cornwell’s 2016 memoir of the identical identify) is nothing if not easy, Cornwell’s sentences as creamy and crafty on the tongue as on the web page. Polished, urbane and preternaturally ready, Cornwell’s typically mischievous demeanor types a sort of shadow narrative, an interesting carapace that Morris’s interrogatory arrows fail to totally pierce. This drains the movie of spontaneity, however pumps it filled with a surprisingly satisfying intrigue: Who’s enjoying whom?
Morris is a grasp exploiter of this sort of duality, and he sounds positively gleeful right here. Returning repeatedly to the notions of deception, betrayal and efficiency — the film’s three philosophical pillars — he coaxes Cornwell via his spectacularly unsettled childhood to his profession as a younger operative within the British Secret Service. A present for artifice emerged early as he realized to emulate his upper-crust schoolmates and a social class to which he didn’t belong. Espionage got here simply after that, his Chilly Conflict adventures spurring deep reflections on the character of duplicity (the notorious double agent Kim Philby, he believes, was hooked on it) and gas for the novels he would later write.
Looming over each anecdote, although, is the formidable shadow of Cornwell’s father, Ronald, a grandly unapologetic swindler and the movie’s unique deceiver.
“I can see my life as a succession of embraces and escapes,” Cornwell says at one level. And whereas he managed to keep away from embracing Ronald’s ultimate, heartless rip-off — maybe essentially the most tragic of the movie’s many betrayals — it’s clear that he by no means totally freed himself from his father’s larcenous affect.
A lot of this can already be identified to these accustomed to Cornwell’s memoir, his earlier interviews or Adam Sisman’s 2015 biography. However even if in case you have by no means learn a le Carré novel — or seen one of many many films based mostly on them — “The Pigeon Tunnel” will delight the curious. Cornwell may disappointingly refuse to debate his reportedly colorful sex life, however he appears greater than keen to reveal psychological wounds. Of explicit poignancy is his worry that human beings don’t have any middle, that what he calls our “inmost room” is empty and the issues we search mere chimeras.
Intellectually wealthy and cinematically disciplined (temporary film clips, one other completely aligned Philip Glass rating), “The Pigeon Tunnel” is a cautious, playful portrait of an skilled manipulator. And although Morris’s dramatization of the titular occasion — Cornwell’s boyhood reminiscence of a horrifying searching journey — affords a pleasant visible metaphor for Morris’s interviewing model, his different re-enactments are pointless: Give up to Cornwell’s eloquence and the pictures create themselves. Precisely what number of of them are innovations maybe even he couldn’t have stated for positive.
The Pigeon Tunnel
Rated PG-13 for wrecked birds and resolute people who smoke. Working time: 1 hour 32 minutes. Watch on Apple TV+.