Every spy story of John Le Carre’s, starting with his first major hit, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, have been the antithesis of movie spy/action heroes like James Bond. Le Carre’s thrills have always been anchored in reality. Eleven years after Cold, Le Carre wrote what is arguably his masterpiece, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The story features George Smiley, who was the main character in Le Carre’s first two books and a minor one in Cold. After one more appearance, the character disappeared for several years, but then roared back in Tinker Tailor and the next two books of the Karla trilogy, The Honorable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People. In 1979, the BBC adapted Tinker Tailor for the small screen, with Sir Alec Guinness as George Smiley. It was a success on both sides of the Atlantic.
Now Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has made it to the big screen, and the filmmakers have done the story proud.
Control (John Hurt) believes there is a mole highly placed in the British Foreign Intelligence Service (nicknamed the Circus). He sends agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to get in touch with an Eastern Block general who may know the name of the mole. But the meeting is blown and Prideaux is shot and captured. The stink caused by the mess leads to Control being kicked out of the Circus, along with George Smiley (Gary Oldman). That leaves the service under the overall leadership of Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), assisted by Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). Control passes away soon after he’s forced out.
Percy has been cultivating a highly-placed Russian source under the code name “Witchcraft.” The source has given them what seems to be a gold mine of intelligence. But then the government minister in charge of overseeing the Circus is contacted by rogue agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) who says the mission he was on was blown by a traitor inside the Circus. The minister approaches Smiley, asking him to come out of retirement to catch the mole.
Smiley requests help from Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), a mid-level manager in the Circus. In effect, Peter will be spying on his own bosses and stealing information for Smiley. If he’s caught, he would be prosecuted as a traitor.
Working from an intelligent, nuanced screenplay by the husband/wife team of Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, Swedish Director Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In) has crafted a thriller in every sense of the word, even though there are only 4 gun shots in the film and not a single car chase. The movie keeps winding back upon itself so you see scenes from different angles and learn more as Smiley learns more. (Sadly, Ms. O’Connor passed away from cancer in 2010, shortly after completing the script. The movie is dedicated to her.)
Oldman gives an interior performance, betraying very little as he absorbs information, yet it is riveting to watch. He gained weight for the movie, so that he could have the middle-age paunch that Smiley would have had. Cumberbatch is effective as the golden young boy helping Smiley. Yet you can feel the inner tension within him, which finally bubbles over. As Tarr, Hardy is an electric jolt within the film. If this were a Bridge game, he’d be trumps. Jones, Firth, Hinds and Dencik must remain enigmatic, so that all who haven’t read the book or seen the earlier TV adaptation won’t know until the final reveal the identity of the traitor. But even if you’d read the book, as I did, you’ll be mesmerized by the peeling away of the covers to expose the mole.
The movie looks like it was filmed in 1970 – the props, the color schemes, the costumes are all wonderfully authentic. The Circus is bland and low rent, realistic for those austere times in the UK. This was long before MI-6 got their large modern office building along the Thames. It’s a delight when you see the Circus’s Christmas party, with them drunkenly singing the theme song to The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World, a 1965 British spy spoof. Or when Santa Claus appears in his red suit with a hammer and sickle on his chest and the whole group breaks into the Soviet national anthem. (If you look carefully among the revelers, you will catch a glimpse of John Le Carre.)
While this is a movie tethered to the Cold War, it also transcends its time to look at the whole question of loyalty and betrayal, and how we can casually slide from one side to the other if we’re only concerned about ourselves. As the traitor eventually explains, “It just got to point where I had to choose a side.” That banal decision costs a number of people their lives in the course of the movie.
The movie has been nominated for 3 Oscars: Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Score. In my opinion, it could also have been the 10th Best Picture nominee. If you want an intelligent thriller that involves your mind more than just your sense of sight and sound, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is that movie.