Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: movie review

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

Jack English/HONS/Focus Features/AP
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.

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.

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.

The quartet of suspects is more like a cabal. Meeting in airless office rooms, the atmosphere thick with smoke and deceit and pumped-up bonhomie, we are left to think that any one of these men, or several of them, could be traitorous. The gifted Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, who made a splash with his new-style vampire movie "Let the Right One In," presents these agents as a species of night stalker. He doesn't overdo it, though. This is a horror film at its most cerebral – all feints and jabs and innuendo. With the exception of that flashy shoot'em-up centerpiece in Budapest, the film is almost totally devoid of large-scale action. It's a bloodless movie about a bloody business.

Perhaps too much so. Alfredson and his screenwriters, Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O'Connor, construct the film as a chess game – in several sequences literally so – with human faces affixed to the pieces. It's gratifying that a movie could get made these days requiring such cogitation – nothing is spelled out for us – but perhaps the filmmakers overcorrected. On the other hand, I rather liked the feeling of being befuddled, since it put me on the same plane with most of the characters in the movie. Plus, it all comes out right in the end.

Le Carré's novel and the BBC miniseries underscored rampant cold-war tensions. More than paranoia was at work. There really were Soviet moles in the Circus. With the cold war mostly an artifact these days, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" has a somewhat deliberately antiquated air. The filmmakers don't try to jazz up the proceedings with a lot of then-and-now equivalencies. At the same time, it is implicit here that spy operations today are essentially the same, with only the names of the players and antagonists changed.

The world of this film is one in which friendship and loyalty have, for all practical purposes, lost their meaning. Except – and this is where the film courts romanticism – for Smiley. His mission to find the mole is, in a sense, a way to redeem the disgraced Control as well as his own self-regard. When we see Smiley interview various other former colleagues, some of them, like Connie (a wonderful Kathy Burke), out in the cold, a bit of a temperature rise can be detected in the otherwise impeccably contained agent. Flashbacks to his marriage also offer an uptick in the warmth factor.

But ultimately this is a cold and clammy world where decisions of great political import appear to be made on the slightest of whims. When the mole is caught, he offers up this explanation: "It was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one." It's no wonder that in such a world loyalties are swapped, friendships excised, and uncovered secrets point only to deeper ones. Grade: B+ (Rated R for violence, some sexuality/nudity, and language.)

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