Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
In the world of spy fiction, there’s John le Carre, and legions of mere mortals, the men and women who give us “Bourne” this and “Bond” that.
And “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” le Carre’s spin on the days when Britain’s spy service was staggering from one “mole” scandal to another — almost fatally compromised for decades — is his masterwork, a subtle and somber thriller about realistic spies engaged in genuine spycraft.
The Oscar nominated film of it, by the Swedish director of “Let the Right One In,” glories in le Carre’s nuances, the intricate mental work of umasking a traitor. It revels in the long, studied pauses of its anti-hero, George Smiley, a disgraced spymaster working outside of the agency, nicknamed “The Circus,” trying to puzzle out/trip up whichever former colleague was actually working for the Soviets the whole time the rest of his team was trying to win the Cold War.
The film has intrigues, shootings, infidelities and clues — lots of clues — which we ponder, along with the poker-faced Smiley, played with Oscar-nominated perfection by Gary Oldman. It plays rather like its central metaphor — a game of chess, with Smiley matching wits with the traitor and the traitor’s control agent, the infamous and unseen Russian spymaster “Karla.”
The raging, chain-smoking, hard-drinking chief of The Circus, known only as “Control” (John Hurt at his most volcanic) has botched a sting he set up without the rest of the agency’s knowledge. He is forced out, along with his chief lieutenant, Smiley, and dies soon after.
But traces of Control’s suspicions linger — agents and gambits blown, secrets lost. So the officious member of the cabinet (Simon McBurney, perfect) commissions Smiley to sneak back in, out of retirement, and get to the bottom of it.
Smiley doesn’t assemble a “team,” so much as get a couple of fellows he trusts in his corner — chief among them, Agent Peter Guillam, given a brittle, nervous competence by Benedict Cumberbatch.
Is there a mole? Could it be the agency’s new chief, Percy (Toby Jones), or Percy’s pal Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), his underling Esterhase (David Dencik) or the dashing Bill Haydon (Colin Firth)? And how does the parallel story, that of a betrayed agent (Mark Strong, terrific as always) who now lays low, teaching at a boy’s school, fit in? “Tinker Tailor” hides its secrets well.
It’s the early 1970s, so Smiley resorts to old fashioned breaking and entering — stolen log books and the like — and simple memory, his and others’ — to unravel the mystery.
Oldman’s wonderfully understated performance at times seems a spot-on impersonation of Alec Guiness’s take on Smiley from the 1970s TV versions of “Tinker Tailor” and “Smiley’s People.” His measured cadences, thoughtful pauses and the way he turns every question from an old friend that he’s interrogating (he never lets on that that’s what this conversation is, an interrogation)into a further probing of that colleague’s recollections, is brilliant.
His marquee scene — chatting up the retired data analyst Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke).
Connie: It was a good time back then.
Smiley: It was a war, Connie.
Connie: A war we could be proud of.
My favorite scene is one Alfredson revisits several times over the course of the film, the annual Circus Christmas Party. I don’t recall this being in the book (the Bridget O’Connor-Peter Straughan script is up for best adapted screenplay). But it succinctly gets at Control’s drinking problem, the eggshells his subordinates walk on when he’s around, the various alliances within the Circus and George Smiley’s personal troubles. And the very notion of a bunch of weathered British Cold Warriors bursting into song — the Soviet National Anthem, yes they all know the words, in Russian — is a stitch.
It’s a pity this cerebral spy game wasn’t nominated for best picture, and that film fans accustomed to manic editing/spectacular parkour chases and epic brawls in this spy films may find it slow. But or the rest of us, it’s as close as the movies can get to a great le Carre novel — a deft and delicious brain-teaser of a movie.
MPAA Rating:R for violence, some sexuality/nudity and language
Cast: Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds
Credits: Directed by Tomas Alfredson, scripted by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, based on the John Le Carre novel. A Focus Features release. Running time: 2:07