The Cold War. MI5. MI6. Kim Philby. It helps to have a nodding acquaintance with one or two of these historical markers in watching Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but they’re not strictly necessary in order to follow the twists and turns of this exquisite adaptation of John le Carré’s spy novel. Anyone who has ever worked in a cubicle and played office politics will recognize the landscape immediately.
The denizens of the Circus — housed in a drab London building where a reserved, middle-aged man named George Smiley (Gary Oldman) and his mates labor in hushed tones — are engaged in conflict on several fronts in 1973. The most serious threat is the news from Budapest that the Soviets, aka Moscow Centre, have placed a mole “at the very top of the Circus,” stealing secrets and spreading disinformation. It’s Smiley’s task to ferret him out. Then there are the contests of power amongst the Circus’ leaders, jockeying for position in the organization. Finally, there is each man’s struggle against bad habits, lapses of memory, and personal weakness that can and will be exploited in the world in which these intelligence spooks operate. That’s Smiley’s world and these are Smiley’s people.
We’re dropped into this without much of a road map and it’s up to us to observe. With the disclosure about the mole, Smiley and his boss Control (John Hurt) have been given the sack and they depart in disgrace. However, soon afterward Smiley is discreetly invited back to head a special investigation outside the Circus, conducted from a dusty room in a grim hotel, to catch the traitor. One by one we meet the eccentric characters entrusted with maintaining the national security of Great Britain.
The new chief of the Circus is a diminutive martinet named Sir Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), who jealously guards his private information sources and yearns a little too openly for the approval of government officials and “our American cousins,” the CIA. Posed around Alleline are Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), toadyish Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), and Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), a glib, charming former combatant with an eye for romance. Haydon, it develops, had a close friendship with operative Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), missing and presumed dead after a botched defection scheme in Budapest. But now Prideaux surfaces in England, quietly leading the life of a teacher in a boarding school in the country — and briefing his old master, Control. Meanwhile, Control has been comparing notes with one of the Circus’ “scalp hunters,” Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), newly returned to the nest with an Istanbul story to tell. Control chooses a junior officer, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), to assist Smiley in his covert snooping. And the game is on.
No fantastic gadgets nor parkour stunts off rooftops, in fact no chase scenes at all. No exotic honey-trap females, with the possible exception of Tarr’s Russian inamorata, Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova). Everyone wears shaggy Seventies haircuts and ill-fitting clothing, and Smiley’s home is just as dreary as his office, shot in tones of thrift-shop tweed by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. Instead of Seventies pop music hits we get older, stodgier tunes to fit the Cold Warrior mentality of men who had lived through WWII. The technology of the spies may seem quaint but the impulses and consequences are the same as in, say, the energetic Bourne films. The main energy expended here is analytical.
That general anti-James-Bond-ism is the splendid stock in trade of master spy novelist le Carré. His participation as an executive producer of Tinker Tailor ensures that a dialogue-driven cause-and-effect mechanism drives the narrative instead of a series of fireball explosions. Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s screenplay adaptation and the precise direction of Alfredson (Let the Right One In) do not retreat one inch from le Carré’s dry, ironic world-weariness. Fans of The Ipcress File and le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, rejoice. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a splendid edifice, deliberately buffed of all but the slightest telltale nuance and painted a dull gray. Not for everyone, but rewarding for those who know how to look and listen.
Even for veteran changeling Oldman, the role of George Smiley is a major transformation. The old spy moves slowly, thinks before he speaks, and carefully assesses the situation. We’re reminded of the recent documentary portrait of CIA chief William Colby, The Man Nobody Knew — these people are so guarded that Smiley’s opposite number, the unseen Karla from Moscow, is closer to him than his similarly invisible wife. In a career dotted with extreme characters — Lee Harvey Oswald, Sid Vicious, Count Dracula, Batman’s Inspector Gordon, playwright Joe Orton, Pontius Pilate, and Ludwig van Beethoven — Oldman has usually projected an air of mental instability. Studious, calculating Smiley calls for the antithesis of that. It’s one of his finest roles, going back to his 1980s work with Mike Leigh. Special kudos as well to Firth, always credible as the notable, envied, old schoolboy; Cumberbatch (War Horse) as careerist hatchet man Guillam; and Strong, typically a heavy but here a complicated man acting as a mentor to a younger version of himself, a shy student.
Somewhere in the midst of all this deception we begin to pull back a bit and look at the Circus, Moscow Centre, Smiley and Karla, the mole, the assassins, and the late lamented Cold War as something akin to an elaborate spectacle, a sort of patriotic pageant put on for the benefit of … well, of whom? Surely there must be more to it than delicious aphorisms (“The fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt”) and the lingering regret embodied in Smiley’s mislaid cigarette lighter. Suddenly we’re reminded of these lines from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous. Hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance. This new version is the past and no different past can ever have existed. In principle the war effort is always planned to keep society on the brink of starvation. The war is waged by the ruling group against its own subjects and its object is not the victory over either Eurasia or East Asia, but to keep the very structure of society intact.” Read your le Carré but don’t forget your Orwell.