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.
I just really hope Oldman gets a nod! Haha!
Matt – I don’t know if he will…if he does, it will be because the film becomes a sleeper hit and the Academy thinks it’s finally time to reward him. He’s really good in this, but nothing about his performance blew me away (again…he was still really really good) – it’s not a flashy role, but a subtle one – and the Academy normally doesn’t like subtly. –DHS
I had read the book, years ago, and will probably see the film after reading your review (even though it seems to have some flaws). I loved “The Constant Gardner.”
John, I loved The Constant Gardner, too – I think I named it the best film of 2005. This is a bit of a different kind of story – but should please anyone familiar with le Carre’s work. –DHS
I so look forward to this and is still waiting for it to be screened in my city. But I’m sorry to hear that all the good acting got muddled in some ambiguous storytelling. Guess it has to do with the complexity of the plot being translated into a 120 mins. visual medium… the problem with film adaptations. And even for the book, I admit, I had a hard time sorting things out and alas, had to give up without finishing.
Arti – the only le Carre novel I have actually read is Absolute Friends, and that was ultimately enjoyable but hard to get through (very slow in parts). I have seen just about all of the film adaptations of his novels, though (though strangely enough not the BBC version of this work). I think he could be chalked up as an acquired taste? –DHS
Dave, I read the book this past fall and could not put it down. There’s an extended flashback between Smiley and Karla, the one time they met in India and Smiley tried hard to turn him, and I understand this flashback was included in the BBC production starring Alec Guinness. It’s a shame they didn’t include the scene this time.
As for the ending, in the book it’s much clearer just how much the Circus and Smiley have lost because of Karla, even though they find the mole. I’m just now reading the second Smiley novel (there are 3), “The Honourable Schoolboy,” and le Carre spells out in the first and second chapters just what the Circus must do to get back on its feet. Other countries’ intelligence services are also wary of them because of what happened with the mole. So, Karla actually gutted the Circus. In the second book, Smiley goes after Karla in a complicated scheme that could be called “Follow the money.” Karla has a fondness for gold.
I’ve seen the BBC production with Guinness of “Smiley’s People,” the third Smiley book in which Smiley and Karla finally face off in a very real way. So, I know how this spy dance ends and I can say it’s an awesome story, the 3 books taken together.
This movie is on my list of must see movies — spy movies are a favorite genre and I have a lot of respect for Oldman and all the rest in the cast. LOVED “The Constant Gardener” — one of my all time favorite movies and novels.
Happy New Year!
Cinda – happy new year to you, too! You now have me most intrigued. I would love to read the fully fleshed-out and complete version of this whole Smiley/Karla game. In the context of this film, keeping Karla off-screen was very effective in showing what an enigmatic but powerful foe he was. –DHS
Have you read any le Carre, Dave? He takes some getting used to if you haven’t. He’s in and out of different character’s minds all the time which can be kind of claustrophobic at times. But he captures the mind set and the human flaws extremely well. Underlying the story is the heartache of the spy who can never truly be intimate with anyone for fear of compromising himself and his employer in some way. Smiley is married and this is one of the saddest aspects of his story…. Fair warning, though — le Carre’s style isn’t for everyone. I have known readers who couldn’t finish his books because they are so internal with little of the action of a plot-driven story. The action he uses has particular punch….
Cinda – yes, I’ve read Absolute Friends as I was telling Arti above. I enjoyed it but not enough to rush out and gobble up all of his works. He’s written so much it’s a bit daunting to know where to start, but I would like to read more eventually. The Smiley books sound like they might be up my alley. –DHS
I had exactly the same reaction to this movie as you and I have read the book and seen the miniseries. I felt like the only reason anything made sense was because I knew the story so well. Do yourself a favor and get the miniseries through Netflix if only to see Alec Guinness’s genius. Oldman did a great job, but Guinness is that much better.
Jason – I have no doubt Guinness and the miniseries are top notch. I might have to give that a look one day. –DHS
[…] the last film adaptation of a Le Carre novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I had no trouble following what was happening here, as screenwriter Andrew Bovell stacks the […]