Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

January 21, 2012
Film still, 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy', 2011
Film still, 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy', 2011

One can tell from John Le Carré’s espionage novels that he is fastidious about the smallest things. Our understanding of a character is built up piece by piece, until he or she begins to feel like an old acquaintance. The fact that these figures are usually snuffed out by the end of the book reveals an author unwilling to give way to the lures of sentiment or the sequel.

Le Carré’s most enduring character is George Smiley, the aging MI6 operative first encountered in his debut, Call for the Dead (1961). Smiley resigns from the service in that story, and is in and out of “the Circus” over the course of a further seven novels. In some he plays a very minor role, but he is the central protagonist of a trilogy that begins with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), moves on to The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), and ends with Smiley’s People (1979).

Le Carré’s so-called ‘Karla’ trilogy, named after the mysterious Soviet spy-master who is Smiley’s arch-enemy, is one of the great achievements of genre fiction. The previous attempt to bring Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to the screen was an acclaimed seven-part BBC series of 1979, starring Alec Guiness as Smiley.

Guiness was so masterful in that role it seemed that no other actor might ever impinge upon the template. It is all the more remarkable that this convincing new version of Smiley is played by Gary Oldman, known for roles such as Sid Vicious, Joe Orton, Dracula, and Martin, the demented man-child of Nic Roeg’s Track 29. We have seen Oldman playing the loon so often it is a revelation to find him perfectly at home in the skin of a demure, secret service bureaucrat.

Guiness’s Smiley was a engaging old bloke, and many other members of the BBC cast had a similar appeal. Oldman’s Smiley is the same modest, would-be scholar, caught up in an unhappy marriage with his faithless wife, Ann, but he has a touch of steel that was absent from the BBC version. The same could be said for most characters in this new cinematic adaptation by Swedish director, Tomas Alfredson, best known for the cult horror movie, Let the Right One In (2008).

With the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a sinister new era of terrorism, predatory capitalism and American ‘interventions’, Le Carré’s novels have taken on a much harsher tone. Communism may have been an irreparably flawed system, but it still provided an ideal for political dreamers and free spirits who longed for a better world. In an era torn between religious fanaticism and corporate greed, there is less room for the sympathetic, old-school spy.

Alfredson’s film reflects that change of tone. Even though it is set in the early 1970s, when the West and the Soviet Union were at loggerheads, it has all the latent cruelty of contemporary Realpolitik. Although the spy business is still a chess game, it is a game played with bitterness and ruthless determination.

Le Carré depicted the secret service as a vast bureaucracy in which personal ambitions interfered with clarity of judgement, and this a special focus of Alfredson’s film. Not only are the chiefs rendered blind by self-interest, they are willing to commit all sorts of acts to preserve that state of affairs.

There are a few daring changes to the story but they only seem to reinforce the air of paranoia in which the action unfolds. For instance, Smiley’s assistant, the dashing Peter Guillam, becomes a closet homosexual, and there is more than a hint of homoeroticism in the relationship between action men, Jim Prideaux and Bill Haydon.

The movie begins with a changing of the guard in MI6, following a botched operation in Budapest (orginally a Czech forest in the book). There is a new team at the helm of the Circus and new sources of information to be cultivated. Smiley has been a casualty of the revamp, being forced into retirement. Soon, however, he will be recalled for the clandestine job of investigating his former colleagues. Apparently there is a double agent – ‘a mole’ – within the upper echelons of the service. It is Smiley’s task to find the traitor.

This is the story in a nutshell, but the plot unravels in a sinuous, complicated manner. Some reviewers have complained that it is too convoluted for comfort, but it is certainly no more complex than the novel. Like its literary predecessor, the film requires a little close attention. It is dense but not impenetrable, and never less than absorbing. Alfredson is particularly good at creating an atmosphere of smouldering menace.

He is assisted by an all-star cast, that includes Colin Firth, John Hurt, Mark Jones, Ciarán Hinds and Toby Jones, along with strong performances by younger actors such as Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy. It is a gathering of talent to rival the BBC series, but this time the acting is less concerned with expressing personality, than with suppressing any signs of vulnerability. In a story in which everyone is playing a role within a role, it is only appropriate that the viewer’s emotions are kept at a discreet distance. The Cold War may be over, but the chill lingers on.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, January 21, 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. France/UK/Germany, Rated MA 15+ 127 minutes