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TIFF 2023 Review: The Pigeon Tunnel

David Cornwell reflects on what inspired him to write espionage novels under the pen name of John le Carré.

There is no shortage of present-day interview clips with David Cornwell and reenactments to illustrate his eventful life.  What becomes clear is that the author was greatly influenced by his mother leaving him at the age of five and his conman father continually having problems with the law. Also discussed in great detail are historical events experienced by Cornwell while at MI5 and MI6 such as the construction of the Berlin Wall and the defection of Kim Kilby.

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Pigeons are a recurring visual theme, split screens give the appearance of shards of information being presented, wide shots that emphasize the environments that David Cornwell is sitting in while being interviewed, and music that would have no problem being used in a thriller, documentarian Errol Morris has produced a highly stylized retrospective.  Occasionally, Morris can be heard asking questions and the audience gets a better sense as to how the interviewer and interviewee got along which adds to the proceedings.  There is no shortage of quick wit from Cornwell who appears extensively throughout the documentary.  Something that was intriguing to learn was that one of his favourite authors to quote is Graham Greene, another former British intelligence officer turned author.

Somehow it seems that the questions on betrayal are only scratching the surface rather than offering some profound enlightenment into the work and the man himself.  As much as the visual stylization provides a dynamic element it can also be distracting.   Comments about his married life are quickly shut down which is the price of securing the cooperation and participation of Cornwell.  The reenactments are done in a spy thriller manner and do not worry, there are plenty of clips from previous adaptations and certain books get highlighted. The pacing drags at times and certain images are repeated too much but overall, the documentary was an enjoyable look into a man responsible for transforming the espionage genre beyond the world of James Bond and into what really happens.


The 48th Toronto International Film Festival runs September 7-17, 2023, and for more information visit    

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada; he can be found at LinkedIn.

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