John le Carre Evades Errol Morris in Entertaining, Wry Interview Doc The Pigeon Tunnel

Movies Reviews Errol Morris
John le Carre Evades Errol Morris in Entertaining, Wry Interview Doc The Pigeon Tunnel

For a documentary about one of the most celebrated writers of spy fiction, The Pigeon Tunnel can seem—at first glance—deceptively placid. Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, the film features an extended conversation between David Cornwell, AKA John le Carre, and Oscar-winning docmaker Errol Morris. It’s just that. Two people talking, with Morris off-screen, their parrying question-and-answers broken up with archival images and re-enactments of Cornwell’s past, as well as snippets from the classic movies or TV adaptations based on his spy universe: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and A Perfect Spy. However, it’s a fascinating conversation that keeps its hold on the viewer for its duration. 

The Pigeon Tunnel begins with Cornwell wondering what kind of an interlocutor Morris might make. After all, an interview is a type of interrogation, he muses. Cornwell makes the comparison lightly, a bemused smile playing on his face, his polished diction never slipping. At once, you know he’s in control of this interview, and by extension this representation of himself—a famous author who borrowed from his own troubled past when writing fiction. 

The documentary delves into Cornwell’s relationship with his father, which he characterizes as one of betrayal. Cornwell was abandoned by his mother when he was five, and was brought up by his con man father Ronnie, who was always on the run from either the mob or the police. The movie’s title comes from one of Cornwell’s visits to Monte Carlo with his father, where a local pastime involving pigeon shooting became imprinted on his memory. 

Ronnie ensured that Cornwell was educated well, so that his son could fit in with polite society. But he also regularly involved Cornwell in his shady world. His duplicitous upbringing eventually led Cornwell to be recruited by the British intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6—although exactly how this happened, we don’t find out. He learned his lessons well, and eventually was the one performing the betrayals. Taking up fiction, Cornwell surmises, might have been a way to deal with the skeletons in his own closet. 

For fans of le Carre, who may have read his 2016 memoir The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, there isn’t much new information in the documentary. What’s engaging is Cornwell’s erudition as he outlines his life and the circumstances that led to his career as spy. Cornwell rarely gave interviews. His conversation with Morris would turn out to be one of the last he gave before his death in 2020. Throughout the process, Cornwell is perfectly at ease, dancing around Morris’ sometimes-speechifying questions with practiced polish. He speaks in perfect paragraphs, never searching or pausing for words.

Another appeal The Pigeon Tunnel might hold is its offer to understand a master’s mindset. We learn what a large role his father played in his life to the very end, as well as Cornwell’s fascination with Kim Philby, the British spy who also led a double life as a Soviet informant. And yet, there’s a sense of not getting the whole story, of Morris perhaps being too enamored with his subject to needle too deeply.

There are no grand revelations. Morris doesn’t push Cornwell far on his own betrayals—to his friends or in his love life. We don’t get a sense of what it was like for Cornwell to live in murky worlds of his own making as an adult, and whether he felt guilt—beyond a general attitude of shrugging away life’s messiness. It’s clear that Cornwell had determined in advance that there would be some questions that he would never answer, that he’s not an open book to be read through and through. There are some secrets he keeps. 

The Pigeon Tunnel, then, is a chance to see an expert raconteur, who seems to know every trick of the trade—answering a master documentarian’s questions when he wants, and deflecting with panache when he doesn’t, regaling you with such wonder that you can’t help but be enthralled.

Director: Errol Morris
Release Date: October 20, 2023

Aparita Bhandari is an arts and life reporter in Toronto. Her areas of interest and expertise lie in the intersections of gender, culture and ethnicity. She is the producer and co-host of the Hindi language podcast, KhabardaarPodcast.com. You can find her on Twitter. Along with Bollywood, Toblerone bars are one of her guilty pleasures.

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