John le Carré Doc 'The Pigeon Tunnel' Is as Mysterious as a Spy Novel

Directed by Errol Morris

Starring David Cornwell

Photo courtesy of Apple Studios

BY Prabhjot BainsPublished Oct 19, 2023

Forever a master of portraiture, the prolific Errol Morris has a documentary style that is just as pronounced and refined as that of a Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino. His profiles take on an uncomfortably intimacy that features some of the most fascinating subjects talking directly into the lens and laying bare unsettling and prescient truths. The penetrating revelations he extracts are a testament to his craft, as he transforms the simple exhibition of people talking on camera into an act as gripping as any thriller, enabling audiences to intuitively read in between the lines of his characters. But his most recent subject, the great English spy novelist and onetime MI6 operative, David Cornwell (better known to his readers as John le Carré) poses a new challenge in The Pigeon Tunnel.

Morris embraces Cornwell's mysterious persona, training his eye not on the familiar intricacies of his love life or fame, but rather the Faustian parables that continue to wrack his mind. In doing so, The Pigeon Tunnel becomes less of an exposé and more a heady dialogue about how fact informs fiction, and how fiction becomes fact. It's the perfect avenue to peer into the psyche of man as enigmatic as Cornwell, who has spent the better part of his life writing "credible fables" about people who subsist off the act of betrayal.

The Pigeon Tunnel is a double entendre, both referring to the title of Cornwell's memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, and the working title for many of his books. It's derived from Cornwell's memory of shooting pigeons for sport over the Mediterranean with his charlatan father Ronnie. The pigeons were bred on a roof and then forced through a tunnel aimed at the coast, where they would immediately become target practice. It's a concept rife with rich subtext, emblematic of the rigged mind games many of Cornwell's characters find themselves embroiled in, often caught in a trap of their own making.

It's one of many ideas, Cornwell details and answers with an elegant, hypnotic fluency. "I learned the manners and attitudes of a class I did not belong to," he says of being entered into a private preparatory school by his conniving father, from whom he learned how people can believe one thing and do another — something essential to the processes of both espionage and fiction. Much of The Pigeon Tunnel centres on the parallels of that relationship and Cornwell's work, powerfully reconciling the complexities of spy-craft with something as universal as a deeply strained father-son dynamic. Perhaps, in an alternate reality, we could have been Cornwell, living a life he calls "a succession of embraces and escapes."

Such moving, witty remarks are given force by Steven Hathaway's taut editing, which splices newspaper headlines, old photographs and clips from TV and movie adaptations of Cornwell's novels, as well as archived interviews in a purposeful manner. Moreover, the ways in which Morris frames the interview itself is mesmeric to say the least. Employing all manner of Dutch angles and hazy filters that render the background of the conversation a murky domain, The Pigeon Tunnel is eerily reminiscent of the subterfuge that has come to define a John le Carré novel. That said, the film's reliance on dramatized reenactments of Cornwell's childhood leaves a bit to be desired, lacking the subtle impact of the central interview and often recalling the lacklustre production values of a History Channel program.

As the examination unfolds it morphs into an existential thinkpiece, one that prompts a look inward at what Cornwell calls "the inmost room of ourselves," which he believes to be bare. It's in these moments that The Pigeon Tunnel is at its most poignant. Manifesting as a study of human behaviour, the film becomes an exploration of art and artist rather than a profile of an extraordinary author. 
(Apple Studios)

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