You’ve no doubt heard of John le Carré––at least for the film adaptations of his novels, among them The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, A Most Wanted Man, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Before his death in 2020, the prolific and wildly successful author (real name: David Cornwell) sat down with Errol Morris to discuss his career, his childhood, and the nature of truth. The result is The Pigeon Tunnel, adapted from le Carré’s 2016 memoir of the same name. Revolving entirely around interviews with Cornwell, The Pigeon Tunnel proves a worthy watch for the novelist’s fans. It’s also too shallow to really captivate a layperson.
That’s not to say Cornwell is a trifling subject. He speaks like a writer, conjuring delightful phrases out of thin air. At the start he describes Morris’s filmmaking style thusly: “Sometimes you’re a spectral figure, sometimes you’re God, and sometimes you’re present.” Cornwell recounts the chapters of his life in vivid detail, with much focus on his familial relationships and his experiences with postwar espionage. Morris illustrates his subject’s life with flashbacks and archival footage. To shoot Cornwell’s interviews, he employs many canted angles and blurs, furnishing the background with mirrors.
The film and memoir take their name from an experience Cornwell had as a boy, seeing his father shoot pigeons in Monte Carlo. The pigeons lined up in a tunnel, waiting to take flight. What they thought was a flight to freedom was a chance to either be gunned down or led back to their roost, where they would wait to resume the same morbid cycle. It follows that betrayal is one of The Pigeon Tunnel’s primary themes, and Morris centers Cornwell’s neglect-ridden childhood and the outing of Kim Philby, a British intelligence officer and spy for Russia whose outing inspired Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
If it’s all reasonably interesting, there’s little grace for the uninitiated. Cornwell’s paternal affection for George Smiley and his guilty identification with Magnus Pym fall flat without any context for who those characters are. Morris shows the scale of Cornwell’s fame through old press footage––most memorably, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold sold 12-15 million copies early on––but there’s plenty to miss if you’re not a fan. Thus the 94-minute runtime feels indulgent. One gets the impression that Morris has an especially difficult time killing his darlings.
What unites Morris and Cornwell––what clearly sparked the admiration of the former for the latter––is their complex relationships to the truth. Cornwell describes being interviewed for a documentary as a kind of performance art and struggles with the disparities between subjective memory and objective reality. These are obviously issues Morris wrestles with, too, yet he spends The Pigeon Tunnel focused on Cornwell’s life without interrogating his outlook in any meaningful way. What could have been a fascinating philosophical exercise play more like a straightforward adaptation of Cornwell’s memoir, right down to the subject narrating passages in voiceover. That his sons, Simon and Stephen, are both credited as producers only magnifies that notion.
Despite that familial input, The Pigeon Tunnel also spends shockingly little time on Cornwell’s personal life, with only one mention of his first wife, Ann Sharp, and merely an allusion to his second wife, Valérie Jane Eustace. Ann birthed and raised three sons (Simon, Stephen, and Timothy) and they were married for 17 years. Jane gave birth to their son, Nicholas, and was Cornwell’s wife for 48 years. Their exclusion puts a massive pothole in this otherwise family-focused tale. While Cornwell goes on at length about his difficult relationship with his con man of a father or the intricacies of postwar espionage, it’s hard not to wonder about the women who raised his sons so that he might lead such a fabulous life.
As a film, The Pigeon Tunnel is competent. It looks nice, its reenactments are polished, and Cornwell’s wit aptly distracts from the movie’s pitfalls. But if you’re looking for an incisive, thorough documentary that probes and provokes, prepare to lower your expectations. Le Carré devotees may enjoy this fluffy biography of the beloved author; Morris fans will undoubtedly leave disappointed.
The Pigeon Tunnel screens at the 61st New York Film Festival and arrives in theaters and on Apple TV+ on October 20.