Today’s spy movies are generally populated with agents who use gadgetry, kung fu and sexual prowess to destroy their megalomaniacal foes. Bullets sometimes help. Not so in John le Carré’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” novel, or Tomas Alfredson’s cinematic adaptation. Here,
brains are key. Brawn is just the tool of cleverer men who wield field agents like pawns in chess.
It’s fitting then that “Control,” (John Hurt) head of the British “Circus” (SIS, commonly called MI6), tapes the pictures of his top underlings onto chess pieces as he considers which is a double agent for Russia. “There’s a mole. Right at the top of the Circus. He’s been there for years,”
Control tells agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) right before secretly sending him to Budapest, to uncover the identity of the traitor.
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Control’s suspects are the top men of SIS: Percy Alleline, Circus director of operations (Toby Jones); three Circus officers: Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik); and the Deputy Chief, George Smiley (Gary Oldman). Control nicknames each from an old nursery rhyme – tinker, tailor, soldier and so on.
Unfortunately Control never learns the mole’s identity, because Prideaux is captured during the mission and tortured for information. It’s as if the Soviets knew he was coming. The resulting scandal forces Control to resign. He dies soon after. Smiley, as second in command, is forced into early retirement.
It’s too bad for Smiley, a man of unflinching loyalty to Control. He gets the chance to redeem himself when Undersecretary Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) contacts Smiley and asks him to continue Control’s investigation from outside of the Circus. With Circus agent Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) secretly working for him from the inside, Smiley begins to uncover a trail that will lead him to the mole.
Numerous spy films end with an agent uncovering a huge conspiracy, a fact that cushions the impact of this film’s ending. Add, too, that the twisting story and flashbacks make the film difficult to follow, and its lack of excessive explosions will make it downright boring for anyone
who isn’t committed – like Smiley – to finding the mole. It takes focus and a bit of work, but those who invest in the film will be rewarded with a rich story, good acting and excellent camerawork.
“Tinker, Tailor” is undoubtedly a more accurate portrayal of espionage than your “Bourne,” “Bond” or “Mission: Impossible” films. Guns are rarely drawn and less often fired (though it’s pretty raw when they are). The film’s most anxious moments include Agent Guillam’s theft of documents from Circus archives. He doesn’t even break in. If this were a typical spy film, Guillam would no doubt enter at night through a skylight to swap the documents before heading off on more explosive escapades.
In “Tinker, Tailor,” the story focuses as much on Smiley’s calculations and investigative interviews as it does on the fieldwork to find and stop the mole. Fortunately Alfredson crafts each scene into a work of art. He uses a gray noir style – there are a lot of noir elements here – to capture cold, dreary England, the moral ambiguity of spy life and the uncertainty of loyalties.
For their part, screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan effectively pack le Carré’s vision into about two hours – hours less than the book’s award-winning television adaptation.
For Oldman’s Smiley, finding the mole in the Circus is a thrilling quest for personal redemption. He’s old, a bit washed up, mentally exhausted from years at the Circus, and, with the chance to redeem himself, as devious and conniving as any double agent.
Oldman is bolstered by a veritable army of excellent British and European actors, including notably Firth and Jones, but it is Strong as Prideaux and Cumberbatch as Guillam who stand out – two young agents calculatingly wielded by their superiors. Their emotional characters are powerful, and they keep the human element from getting lost in a complex story of spy versus spy.
As Smiley’s assistant, Cumberbatch’s Guillam is a dedicated underling whose unflinching loyalty to his boss reflects Smiley’s own past service to Control. Such “father-son” relationships are scattered throughout the film, and guide agents’ actions more than duty or patriotism. It makes betrayal more painful, and devotion more valuable.
“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” isn’t the book reincarnated, but it pays a healthy tribute to its source, and is a refreshingly original and realistic take on the Cold War world of espionage.