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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

The Spy Who Came Back to the Fold

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

There’s a sequence of short scenes very early in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy that catches and holds our interest as it slowly builds in suspenseful intensity toward a suddenly explosive climax. These brief, close-ordered scenes set up the movie’s central narrative and evoke its theme and milieu: the dicey practices of international espionage and the strange, obscured, and morally queasy world in which it operates.

This was certainly the tenor of John le Carré’s 1974 novel, from which the movie has been adapted. Tinker, Tailor’s early minutes depict the head of Britain’s MI6 (John Hurt, deftly biting and convincingly sardonic in his few key scenes), convinced that his counter-intelligence agency has been infiltrated by a double agent, a mole, dispatching a trusted manager to Budapest. There he is to contact another traitor, one from behind the Soviet Iron Curtain, in order to learn the mole’s identity. The disastrous cock-up that ensues sends the director into early retirement, along with his right-hand man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman). Since such a mess is too big to conceal or ignore, a worried cabinet minister convinces old-hand Smiley to conduct a surreptitious investigation of the former director’s actions and suspicions.

All of this is handled persuasively. These events are encapsulated and reordered from le Carré’s very popular novel. The picture sharply sketches the murky political and ethical environment these spies inhabit, and their peculiar relations with each other, the rivalries and doubts that a practiced, casual gentility disguises. The settings and interactions, the sense of a low-key kind of occult little world that can wield tremendous influence, are nicely done.

Unfortunately, Alfredson’s movie begins to lose its way almost as soon as it gets going. Tinker, Tailor becomes obscure itself, rendering le Carré’s intricately plotted story in a choppy, confusing, and eventually anticlimactic fashion. The movie plods along in several stretches as a kind of espionage procedural without generating much tension, and then jumps to a new twist or reveal. It can become hard to follow this fractured progress.

Alfredson and writers Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor haven’t just simplified the novel’s convoluted story line; they’ve broken it up and interrupted it with backflashes and voiced-over accounts of the past. They never achieve a coherence or pace that could allow an audience to get a purchase on what’s happening, or give it an incentive to try.

Smiley, dryly reticent, vigilant, and unobtrusively intellectual, is the human core of the novel, and Alec Guinness is widely thought to have got him down in the early 1980s six-hour BBC miniseries. (James Mason also played Smiley in Sidney Lumet’s 1967 The Deadly Affair, taken from a very early le Carré novel.) Oldman’s performance is unlikely to make the novel’s fans think of his as the definitive interpretation. The filmmakers hold things up so long that their movie is about an hour old before Oldman gets a chance to do any real acting. Where Guinness communicated a sadly world-weary outlook and a specialized sense of honor, Oldman’s Smiley seems more cautious than crucially wary. He’s not been helped by the clutter of experienced, recognizable Brit actors (including Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, and Benedict Cumberbatch) competing for attention, whose characters never become individualized or interesting enough. And because there’s really nobody besides Smiley on whom we can focus, it’s hard to bridge the gap between the story’s Cold War period and ethos and our own time. Le Carré’s recreation of the moral ambiguity, even the moral hazards and squalor of spying, can seem timely enough because of his vivid insights and human beings. This film doesn’t give us much of that.

Watch the trailer for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

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