During the height of the Cold War, a botched extraction in Budapest forces the head of British Intelligence (John Hurt as Code Name: Control) to resign, and “The Circus” goes through a house cleaning. Not content with a forced retirement, veteran spymaster George Smiley (Gary Oldman, in a devilishly subtle performance) becomes determined to weed out the alleged mole at the top of The Circus. It slowly becomes clear that Smiley is involved in a master chess game against a Soviet counterpart named Karla (who remains mysteriously just off-screen) – a man he failed to turn years earlier and who knows Smiley’s one weakness. The biggest mystery isn’t the identity of the mole but which of these master craftsmen in the world of espionage is going to pull a check mate on the other.
Ah, John le Carre – no one does wearisome white-knuckle ennui quite like the anti-Ian Fleming and successor of Graham Greene in the foggy world of thinking men’s spy novels. Think of this new film adaptation of his 1970’s classic, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (representing the code names given to those under watch) as The Usual Suspects for senior citizens. I don’t mean that with any disrespect – this curious thing works quite well all things considered and is far more entertaining than the well-regarded 1960’s film adaptation of the similarly themed le Carre tale, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Director Tomas Alfredson effectively creates a world of cold, grey, paranoia – the kind that could almost bore someone to death while they wait for something – anything – to happen. His masterfully composed shots create a sense of roving claustrophobia and he populates these uninviting places with a veritable who’s who of British actors (including Oscar-winner Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones and Benedict Cumberbatch) all on their A-game.
Early on there’s too many people doing not much of anything but talking, and the screenplay (by Bridget O’Conner and Peter Straughan) seems to struggle with condensing what must have been a very fat, densely plotted novel (which I have not read). There’s no clear focus and it moves back and forth in time with no sense of transition. However, Alfredson’s direction holds things together until we get to the near boiling point about 1/3 of the way through – the introduction of a plot-thread involving an agent named Ricki Tarr (played by the about to be hugely famous Tom Hardy – soon to be seen as the villain Bane in Nolan’s closing Batman opus) and a Russian woman claiming to know the secret of the mole. This excellently played episode segues into the main conflict involving Smiley and Karla, and from that point on the film operates as a slow cooker of suspense waiting for the big reveal. Meanwhile, crafty little bouts of violence and gore applied with surgical Scandinavian precision by Alfredson keep things interesting for the audience. After all, people’s lives and not just office politics are at stake here.
Eventually we do learn who the mole is. However, attempts at humanizing this turn of events fall mostly short. This film is virtually heartless when compared to the frantically great Fernando Meirelles adaptation of le Carre’s The Constant Gardner from 2005. And fittingly we never meet Karla. It would seem in the closing scene of Smiley returning to the head of the table in that eerily sterile conference room at the heart of The Circus, that the old chap had won the match albeit feeling more weather-worn than ever. But maybe the enigmatic Karla let it play out just how he wanted it, with The Circus thinking if even only for a moment that they wouldn’t have to worry about a mole anymore, and Smiley, a man whose weakness he knew all too well, comfortably in charge. In le Carre’s innocuously cold stormy world, there’s no comfort for the weary.