(This review was originally published on December 16, 2011 at The Rogers Revue)
Anyone who has read much John le Carré is probably well acquainted with George Smiley, the quintessential British spy character of the Cold War era (no, it’s not James Bond). In “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, which is the first book in the ‘Karla’ trilogy (released later as the omnibus “The Quest for Karla”), Smiley is tasked with eradicating a KGB mole who has infiltrated the sanctum of SIS (British Intelligence). In the film, Swedish director Tomas Alfredson paints a picture as raw and uncompromising as the 1974 novel and more engrossing than the 1979 BBC miniseries with Gary Oldman turning in an Oscar worthy performance as the MI6 veteran.
Amidst the taupe and mahogany that envelope this veritable jungle of espionage, the players in the book resemble wolves; calculated, apprehensive and lacking compassion. Alfredson’s film, from a screenplay by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, captures that essence so accurately that I’m sure it brought back memories for le Carré (as a burgeoning author he worked at SIS under his real name, David Cornwell). In addition, there are hints of the haunting textures that made Alfredson’s 2008 vampire film “Let the Right One In” so eerie. Solemn in mood and almost monochromatic in setting, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is somehow pitch perfect.
There is no expository dialogue in the film, so I couldn’t help but wonder after the first 45 minutes: what the hell are these guys thinking about? How are they going to condense a 7-Part miniseries into a two-hour movie at this pace? It turns out that most of what these characters are doing is thinking, planning and plotting, and much of what we learn is in their expression (or lack thereof). Their stone faces are as washed-out as the London skyline, agency lifers who operate solely on instinct, some as unwitting pawns and others as manipulative predators. All are men of few words, and rightly so. The tone of Alfredson’s remake is quiet, earnest and devoid of anything extraneous.
This makes “Tinker Tailor”, like our opponents of that era, as enigmatic as the men who walk the dark, masculine hallways of MI6 headquarters (referred to here as ‘The Circus’). Oldman plays George Smiley with stoicism and reserve, essentially carrying his character in silence for the first thirty minutes of the film. He is a patriot of the highest order, though like many of his colleagues is not recognized for it. Perhaps secretly reluctant in his duty, Smiley exists in a world of poker faced men who harbor many secrets.
When ‘Control’ (John Hurt), the director of ‘The Circus’ is alerted to the existence of a double agent in the ranks, he sends Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary to intercept information about the threat. After the operation goes awry, resulting in a fatal shooting (there is a particularly disturbing image in the aftermath), Control and Smiley are inexplicably forced into retirement. Control, who has grown psychically fragile, dies of a heart attack soon thereafter, a fate probably more common in the real world of their trade than being shot. We discover that both Smiley and his mentor had shared suspicions about Soviet information referred to as ‘Witchcraft‘, which is either being used as counterintelligence or for subversive purposes by their newly appointed director. Upon Smiley’s reinstatement to SIS by the head of intelligence to locate the mole, he finds Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), a young agent who had mysteriously vanished (he was assumed either dead or flipped) before turning up at Smiley’s home with stories about a Soviet mastermind known as ‘Karla.’
According to Tarr, Control had crafted a list of agents at the Circus who could be Karla’s mole: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). Control had codenamed this group ‘Tinker’, ‘Tailor’, ‘Soldier’ and ‘Poorman’, respectively.
And so begins the hunt as the plot unravels, and the real faces of espionage start becoming more evident. Their pallid, worn faces are the first line of defense in the intelligence war, as well as preserving their personal, albeit unknown interests. Every suspect is essentially a man in the boardroom; there’s not much gun-toting or hand-to-hand combat in Smiley’s world, only deception. Everything is in plain sight, all the players are face-to-face.
There is nothing simple about any of these characters, and though it may be difficult for the audience to initially see through their lack of emotion, it becomes clear that this is how we’re meant to perceive them: distant and cold. All are strong performances by the supporting cast, most noteworthy are Hardy as the desperate Ricki Tarr and Benedict Cumberbatch as Smiley’s sidekick Peter Guillam. Alfredson suggests that every move, gesture and drawn out silence could potentially mean something. It is in these moments that we are given time to absorb the intricacies of the film.
I’m a big fan of the cerebral thriller, and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is as cryptic as I would imagine the real world of espionage being. But the film also requires such a degree of patience for deciphering jargon in the first hour that it sometimes risks alienating the audience (you’ll get used to words like ‘Babysitter’ and ‘Reptile Fund’). That said, the pieces of the puzzle come together very coherently in the final act, and only in retrospect do we realize how engaging this film actually was. Perhaps it’s even worth a second look.