I’ve never truly understood why the spy thriller genre exerts such a broad fascination among the novel-reading and moviegoing public. After all, very few of us (presumably) have any real acquaintances who make their living through espionage. Perhaps it’s the very arcane and risky nature of the spy’s activities that makes so many people want to read about him/her, in preference to characters with whom they might have more in common.
But there is more than one type of spy thriller, with very different types of appeal depending on…well, what thrills you. Some play up the glamorous, hyperkinetic James Bond sort of spy, who pauses only long enough between explosions and acrobatics to seduce shady women in slinky evening gowns or add the latest spy gadget to his high-tech arsenal. Then there’s the quiet, rumpled, intellectual kind of spy depicted in the writings of John Le Carré, who knows whereof he speaks because he really did work for MI6 (a/k/a the Circus) back in the darkest days of the Cold War – before the notorious traitor Kim Philby compromised his cover and forced him to turn to other modes of employment.
Le Carré got his best revenge, of course, laughing all the way to the bank with a string of best-sellers while making Philby the inspiration for one of the villains of his George Smiley novels. And it’s Smiley who personifies the insider’s view of what makes a truly professional, successful spy: astute powers of observation and analysis, a prodigious memory, the patience to think things through thoroughly and connect the dots. All are qualities that are much easier to convey on paper than visually, so it’s no wonder that most of the espionage tales that get made into movies are the kind whose thrills can be measured in horsepower and megatonnage.
Thus, bringing Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to the big screen – with many fewer hours than the BBC had available with its TV mini-series back in 1979 – is a brave act, and one that will separate grownups who like the challenge of unraveling a complex puzzle from perennial adolescents who fantasize about being 007. I really wanted to like this movie, and am somewhat sad to report that, from the perspective of someone who didn’t already know the book, it doesn’t totally work. The exposition is a bit lacking, the roles and motivations of many of the characters a bit confusing, the sequence of deductions by which Smiley eventually figures out the identity of the Soviet mole at the top echelons of the British intelligence agency a bit vague. It’s the kind of movie that one probably needs to see twice in order not to miss some critical details. Fans of the Bond flicks will probably lose patience and just walk out in the middle.
That’s not for lack of artfulness, either on the part of director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) or the excellent cast headed by Gary Oldman. It’s just the nature of the beast: So much of the story is going on inside Smiley’s head. Alfredson tries all sorts of tricks to clue us in, like looping bits of past conversations on the soundtrack to indicate what Smiley’s thinking about at a particular moment, or showing footage of railway tracks switching to illustrate some character making a game-changing choice. And Oldman tries manfully to convey his inner workings, in the process demonstrating that he is indeed as fine and nuanced an actor as his hype proclaims – not just one who is willing to take on the roles of extreme characters.
It’s a joy to see this guy – so often typecast as a villain, junkie or wacko – just keeping still for a bit and letting Smiley’s thoughts and feelings play over his weathered face. Fangirls who have regarded Oldman as “hot” in some of his earlier roles will be disappointed: The actor lets himself look old and faded here, even nerdy, with an exaggerated receding hairline and huge thick eyeglasses that reflect the light more than they let us see in. He slumps in weary postures that play up his weak chin and winces with lumbago whenever he has to stand up or sit down. He gives us Smiley as an aging, disillusioned man who has been betrayed many times over, yet clings to his deep loyalties and his sharp mental faculties. The flesh is weak, but the wheels never stop turning.
There’s a scene, early in the film, where Smiley and his boss Control (John Hurt, amazing as always) are forced to retire, taking the fall for a bungled operation that wasn’t their fault. They walk out of the Circus as a gaggle of younger agents gaze on in disbelief, and it sets the elegiac tone for the rest of the movie: a sort of Twilight of the Gods of international intrigue. And yet it’s only the ‘70s; the Russians are still the Bad Guys and the fall of the Berlin Wall is as yet undreamed-of. What Smiley and his seasoned contemporaries are beginning to recognize is that their loyalty may prove misplaced when one’s own government turns out to be only a little less corrupt than the demonized adversary. And therein lies the temptation to turn traitor.
That’s one subtext in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; another is about the way in which a spy’s life makes the yearning for trust and intimacy all but futile. It may be one of the oldest clichés in the genre, but here it’s not used in the exploitive way that one sees in the 007 movies with their disposable “Bond girls.” Rather, the lingering sorrow that Smiley feels over losing his wife after she has been seduced by a caddish colleague foreshadows a string of decisions with far-reaching consequences that are made by others, either because or in spite of the human need to form romantic or sexual attachments.
Besides Oldman and Hurt, the cast is packed with current stars of the British film industry: Benedict Cumberbatch (the BBC’s latest incarnation of Sherlock Holmes) provides more than eye candy as Smiley’s young and energetic legman Peter Guillam, who gets the most nerve-wracking assignment in the whole show. Tom Hardy is edgy and desperate as Ricki Tarr, a low-level operative who stumbles into more than he bargained for while on assignment in Istanbul. Toby Jones (Percy Alleline/Tinker), Colin Firth (Bill Haydon/Tailor), Ciarán Hinds (Roy Bland/Soldier) and David Dencik (Toby Esterhase/Poor Man) are all fine in their turns as members of the ambitious cabal who purge Control and Smiley from the Circus so they can run their pet operation.
Mark Strong is especially compelling in the pivotal role of Jim Prideaux, the experienced spy at the center of the failed operation in Hungary that kicks off the movie. After tipping off Control that he has a mole in his midst, Prideaux is nearly killed, captured, tortured, then repatriated to England and provided deep cover. If you can keep pace with Smiley in figuring out who did all these things, for which side and why, you’ll “get” this movie better than most audiences.
This reviewer’s advice: See Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, bearing in mind that the thrills will be all in your head. The pace is slow but the tension is high, so hang in there – and pay close attention. Then see it again, and get all the juicy stuff that you missed the first time through.