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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: movie review

Le Carré’s brilliant spy novel ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ is reimagined for the big screen.

By Peter RainerFilm critic / December 9, 2011

Gary Oldman stars as George Smiley, a retired spy brought back into British intelligence to try to root out a Soviet mole, in this adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 cold-war novel.

Jack English/HONS/Focus Features/AP


If you only know John le Carré's 1974 novel "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" from its 1979 seven-part BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness as spy hero George Smiley, the new movie version might at first seem like an affront. For one thing, although mostly faithful to the book, it necessarily compresses the action into a relatively mere 127 minutes, thus making an already complicated narrative even more difficult to decode.

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I was familiar with the book and miniseries, I knew whodunit, and still I found myself puzzling through the movie minute by minute. I'm still not sure I have it all straight. This is, after all, a world where single agents morph into double and triple agents in the blink of a jaundiced eye. But this is also a world where confusion is essential to the scenario. Being in the dark for much of the movie is not so much a criticism of it as a simple statement of fact.

This time around, Smiley is played by Gary Oldman, an actor about as far removed from Guinness's low-key charisma as can be imagined. Oldman is known for feasting on the scenery, but, in a preemptive strike, he goes way in the other direction here. He seems famished. It's a beautifully modulated performance of a man whose presence, at times, seems on the verge of vanishing – not a bad attribute for a spy.

As the film begins, Control (John Hurt), the head of M16 (the British secret service, known colloquially as "the Circus"), sends a field spy (Mark Strong) into Budapest to talk a Hungarian general into defecting. The general knows the identity of the mole in the Circus who has been feeding secrets to the Soviets. Things, however, go horribly wrong, and Control's reign is ended.

Who is the mole? Brought back into the Circus following his enforced retirement and Control's death is Smiley, who narrows his search to four men at the top: Percy (Toby Jones), Bill (Colin Firth), Roy (Ciarán Hinds), and Toby (David Dencik) – all beautifully played.


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