Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Review
Great Britain, 1974. The country is falling apart amidst a series of strikes but business at the Secret Service - affectionately known as 'The Circus'- is booming thanks to a new line of intelligence from a Russian source named Merlin. It seems to be putting Britain back in the game and even promises to allow our spooks to seriously compete with the USA. But there's a problem. A Soviet mole has inflitrated deep into the Circus and reached the top echelons of management. Desperately trying to avoid a scandal, the government turns to former deputy director George Smiley (Oldman) to find the identity of the traitor and "clean the stables". His investigations reveal a complex web of betrayals going back twenty years which threaten to destroy the reputation of the service once and for all.
One of the biggest strengths of Tomas Alfredson's new adaptation of John Le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is that it is firmly a period piece, set during a time when the Cold War was still freezing. Certainly, he finds parallels with modern day wars and our own peculiar set of 21st Century treacheries but the atmosphere is firmly that of a past which seems as much a foreign country as any in which a spy ever found himself. It's a grey, bleak world suffering from the depredations of an undeclared war which has been fought in various degrees ever since 1917. Most of the victims of this war are anonymous to us, buried in obscure graves with bullets in their backs or dried blood staining their lacerated throats. But the walking wounded are the spies; whether determinedly returning time and again to the frontline or sitting in offices, sipping weak tea, wondering where it all went wrong and yearning for achievement and consummation.
It's this greed for success which has led to the embracing of Source Merlin and, consequently, to a new golden age for the mole; he is able to slip vital British secrets to the Russians without any difficulty. It's also the thing which disgusts George Smiley. He despises the greed for easy accomplishment and the desperate reaching after whatever glory can be found in lists of Russian Fleet movements. He understands the transience of the banal triumphs and the human cost of the spying game. Indeed, he embodies it. Smiley is a brilliant spy and a disastrous human being, unable to express warmth or love but yearning to experience both. In Gary Oldman's astonishing performance, we see this in everythinghe does. Oldman's Smiley is a man who is, in the words of his old colleague Connie Sachs and in every sense of the word, "under-fucked". Whereas you could never imagine Alec Guinness caring about such a thing, Oldman's Smiley does. He cares deeply, punishing himself - and perhaps dampening his own sexual obsessions - with daily swims in a freezing cold lake. His wife betrays him constantly, with his full knowledge and tacit consent, but he is willing to take her back in a heartbeat. The things which make him a master spy - deviousness, deep understanding of the motivations of traitors and the dark side of human nature, an ability to calmly accept torture and violence as part of the job - make him ill-fitted to live a normal life and his tragedy is that, fundamentally, he is unable to accept that.
Smiley compensates for this by becoming deeply introverted and Oldman, so often a spectacularly showy actor, is heroically restrained, erupting only once or twice in something resembling moral outrage. He is at his most animated in a lengthy monologue where he describes a meeting with his opposite number in Moscow, codenamed Karla, and acts out how he tried to persuade him to come over to our side. It's a great sequence, shot in a long take by Alfredson which honours the performance and tests the viewer's concentration. Much of the film is shot in lengthy takes which is highly refreshing at a time when most mainstream films fall over themselves to avoid the risk of boring the viewer. It's a risk well worth taking, although the backlash against this film - inevitable given the incessant hype it's received from Studio Canal - suggests that some viewers have had their patience sorely tried. I think the pacing is entirely suitable because this is a film of words and thoughts where the actions are long contemplated and, when they finally take place, tend to be over in a flash. The story is really quite straightforward but the way it is plotted is deliberately complex, coming to us largely as it comes to Smiley - in a series of revelations from his colleagues.
Each revelation fills in one more piece of the puzzle and allows a member of the supporting cast to shine. Kathy Burke is inspired as Connie Sachs, the human filing cabinet who has been summarily dismissed from the service. She makes Connie a pathetic but loveable woman who survives on a combination of drink and memories. Mark Strong makes an impact as Jim Prideaux, a sacrificial lamb who has unexpectedly survived to tell his tale and has a particular grudge against the mole. Best of all, Tom Hardy is completely convincing as Rikki Tarr, the somewhat incompetent agent who first discovers the existence of the mole. Hardy, an actor who seems to get better with every film, unexpectedly makes Tarr vulnerable and touching rather than the cynical prick portrayed in the book. It's an effective change which renders his love for the woman who has told him about the traitor all the more affecting. He also manages to make some very dodgy 1970s wardrobe decisions look quite cool.
In a sense, the film is a whodunnit with four main suspects, each of whom could be the mole, and this is where the film falls down somewhat. The two hour duration doesn't give enough time for the four men to be sufficiently characterised and good actors like Colin Firth, Toby Jones and Ciaran Hinds are left without a great deal to do; that they still make an impression is a tribute to their skill, although I thought Jones and Hinds might have advantageously swapped roles. The exception is the Swedish actor David Dencik who makes something touching and funny out of the shallow and pompous Toby Esterhase. I'm equally unsure about Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam, Smiley's protege and confidant. There's nothing wrong with his performance and he gets a great suspense scene towards the middle of the film but he's been saddled with an underdeveloped subplot which for some reason chooses to make Guillam homosexual.
But to some extent, the identity of the mole is just a McGuffin. The film is really about Smiley and the world which he inhabits and in this regard, it's a triumph for Alfredson, screenwriters Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O'Connor, and Hoyte Van Hoytema, the great DP who also shot Let the Right One In and The Fighter. The bleak vision of a Britain at the end of its rope is typical of foreign directors who come to work here and in this regard, Alfredson is in the great tradition of talents ranging from Sam Peckinpah to Jules Dassin. Considering how wordy the film is, an awful lot is told in pointed visuals such as a scene in a car with a wasp and an addition to the book which features a Christmas Party at the Circus - during which everyone sings along to "The Second Best Secret Agent" from Lindsey Shonteff's film Licensed To Kill. Most remarkably of all, Alfredson creates an extraordinary montage at the end during which a big-band version of "La Mer" forms the soundtrack to images of desolation and betrayal capped by a supremely ironic coda. Smiley has caught the mole and ascends to the leadership of the circus. But the service has been compromised and all the networks have been blown. Scores of agents face a death sentence. Smiley is finally the King but, as suits the man who seeks to be nobody, he is King of Nothing.