The Pigeon Tunnel | TIFF

The Pigeon Tunnel Review: A Most Wanted Interview

TIFF 2023

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6 mins read

The Pigeon Tunnel
(United Kingdom, 94 min.)
Dir. Errol Morris
Programme: TIFF Docs (International Premiere)

 

Towards the end of The Pigeon Tunnel, David Cornwell, better known to the literary world as John le Carré, posits that most truths are subjective. We remember and recall with a tremendous bias that such a statement doesn’t necessarily make something untrue, but it makes the objective truth harder to pinpoint. It’s an intriguing concept to raise after listening to Cornwell and Errol Morris talk about the author’s life for the better part of ninety minutes.

Cornwell’s disarming self-awareness makes him an intriguing subject for Morris. Perhaps given his career in the intelligence world, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Cornwell plays his cards close to his chest. Every word spoken and each anecdote shared is carefully considered, with Cornwell drawing a clear line about what’s off limits, namely his romantic life.

The Pigeon Tunnel presents the idea of their meeting as an interrogation rather than an interview, but what transpires is a thoughtful conversation between two men at the top of their fields. Cornwell openly discusses his father Ronnie, mother Olive, and his precarious childhood, engaging Morris in exploring how those relationships, particularly with his dad, shaped him as a man and an author. It’s not navigating Cornwell’s past, though, where their conversation comes alive; rather, it’s when he and Morris discuss more abstract concepts, like betrayal and Cornwell’s dependency on it.

Morris splices in dramatic re-enactments, photos from Cornwell’s childhood, archival footage of his public appearances on television shows, and clips from films adapted from his novels to bring his stories to life. Editor Steven Hathaway and cinematographer Igor Martinovic create a rich visual language for the film that puts audiences in mind of ’70s spy thrillers while still feeling fresh and modern.

Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan’s score aids greatly in setting the tone for the film as well. In the early minutes when Cornwell sits in place surrounded by stately-looking books, pulsating string orchestrations fill the space in anticipation. The tête-à-tête between Morris and Cornwell exists without any provocation or manipulation, nevertheless, the music excites the atmosphere — readying audiences for a meeting of the minds.

In many ways, Morris and Cornwell are the perfect suitors for one another: individuals from humble beginnings whose experiences and intelligence gives them a particularly intuitive analysis of others — handy in their respective professions. At the beginning of the film, we witness the two men sizing each other up. It’s clear that Cornwell is familiar with Morris, his work, and his style, and we can only assume his respect for Morris allowed the famed documentarian this opportunity, but still, Cornwell seems on guard for much of the interview.

When asked why he has decided to finally participate in a film about his life and career, the famously private novelist hints towards wanting a definitive record. Save for Morris’s questions and reactions, Cornwell’s voice is the only one heard in the film through the interview and narration, and fans of Cornwell will get a particular kick out of hearing the author affirm just how autobiographical some of his works are. This in turn, brings audiences back to Cornwell’s contention that truth is subjective. He constantly reminds Morris that his telling of events is true to him and how he has included these events into his otherwise fictional books are also done in a manner faithful to his memory. But memory is fallible, a fact Cornwell is very well aware.

Undoubtedly the film understands, acknowledges, and celebrates the achievements of Cornwell, but The Pigeon Tunnel becomes much more than a profile of a public figure. Through his conversation/interview/interrogation with Morris, this documentary stands as a character study into one of the great literary minds of our time — a true pioneer in his field whose contributions have permeated throughout pop culture and in the intelligence world. In the same way that Cornwell’s characters play in the grey areas of morality, The Pigeon Tunnel emphasizes how the author’s own lifelong cerebral pursuits often retreated into these same ambiguities.

 

The Pigeon Tunnel premiered at TIFF 2023 and debuts on AppleTV+ in October.

Get more coverage from this year’s festival here.

 

 

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