John le Carré called the British intelligence service The Circus in his books, and with good reason: Everyone wants to be a ringmaster, clowns keep getting in the way of the action and stumbling over each other, while barely tamed field agents answer to trainers who often humiliate or mishandle them. When the sawdust is cleared away after a mission, the whole process begins again – often with no change at all.
That’s the background against which the film “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” unfurls. The 1973 novel became a six-hour miniseries in 1979, when Alec Guinness capped his career with an acclaimed performance as George Smiley. Now Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”) has boiled the story down skillfully to a third of that length and infused it with the wry, energy-sapping dread so often found in modern Scandinavian cinema.
The air often seems choked with cigarette smoke or pollution. Men in drab suits meet quietly in dusty rooms full of dingy furniture; the pulling back of a curtain reveals a yellow sky, not a blue one.
Through this world moves unsmiling Smiley (Gary Oldman), like a shark so far beneath the surface of the water that he’s barely visible. He believes, if no one else does, that Soviet spy chief Karla planted a mole years ago who has risen to the top level of the British service and passes crucial details to the Communists.
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Smiley inherited this idea from Control (John Hurt), who sent trusty Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) into Czechoslovakia to prove him right. Now Control has died, Prideaux has been shot, and Smiley must decide whether the mole is crafty Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), charming Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), corpulent Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) or conniving Percy Alleline (Toby Jones).
The title refers to Control’s names for his suspects, which initially included Smiley: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Beggarman, Thief. Not one of these power brokers wants to be on Smiley’s side. Because if he’s right, “valuable” information they’ve gotten from a double agent – a former Russian general who now allegedly helps the Brits – may be hogwash.
The screenplay by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor brilliantly distills the novel without leaving out significant incidents. (The stuff they cut forecasts events in le Carré’s other two Karla novels, “The Honourable Schoolboy” and “Smiley’s People.”) The film requires close attention, especially while it jumps back and forth in time for the first half-hour, but all the pieces lock into place tightly by the end.
The proceedings take place in a world of nations that no longer exist and a Cold War that thawed decades ago. No one under 50 remembers the paranoia of that time, the belief that loose lips could sink not just ships but Western civilization. Alfredson and the writers capture that feeling while making it seem slightly absurd, or maybe just quaint.
We know with the benefit of hindsight that communism was likely to fall, whether or not details about British submarines crossed a desk in Moscow (or vice versa). But the benefit of le Carré’s novels – not to mention this film – is to show how the pursuit of information turned people into power-hungry drones who lost their humanity in the service of their countries and their own inflatable egos.
‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’
The terrific spy novel has become a film that’s faithful to both its narrative and its spirit.
STARS: Gary Oldman, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, David Dencik, Mark Strong, John Hurt.
DIRECTOR: Tomas Alfredson.
RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes.
RATING: R (violence, some sexuality/nudity and language).
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