Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
That’s the word that comes to mind when watching Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” The morality is murky, the mise en scene is murky, the code-language is murky. The film is a corrective for anyone who misses the Cold War.
But is the plot too murky? Or truncated? The movie is based upon the 432-page Cold War novel by John le Carré, which was made into a seven-part, five-and-a-half-hour BBC miniseries starring Alex Guinness in 1979. Now it’s down to two hours. In that time, amid much silence, code language, and the cold vacuity of gray-brown institutional buildings, we meet a dozen or more characters, five of whom could be traitors, all of whom are given further codenames, the titular codenames, while being investigated by George Smiley (Gary Oldman), the career spy who is pulled from a forced retirement, and who may be a suspect himself. By the time we get a handle of who’s who and what’s what, it’s time for the big reveal, and we still barely know “tailor” and “soldier,” which eliminates half our suspects. So who could it be? Oh, right. Him. There you go.
Of course the big reveal, for some, is about as much a reveal as who killed Hamlet’s father. The story is so well-known, particularly in Great Britain, that at this point it’s more about form than content: “How is the story told?” rather than “What happens?” And in this, Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”) triumphs. In “Three Days of the Condor,” a 1970s-era CIA director is asked if he misses the kind of action he saw in the intelligence field during World War II. “I miss that kind of clarity,” he responds. “Tinker Tailor” is all about that lack of clarity. It’s about murkiness. Le Carré has already called it the best adaptation of his work.
It begins in suspicion and in the negative. “You weren’t followed?” Control (John Hurt) asks Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), a former head of the Scalphunters division. “I want you to go to Budapest,” he tells him. “This is not above board,” he tells him.
Apparently a Hungarian general wants to come over but in Budapest things go wrong and Prideaux winds up dead. It’s such a fiasco that Control, Chief of the Circus, which is the nickname of the Secret Intelligence Service, which is more commonly known as MI6, is dismissed, along with his deputy, Smiley. This is handled so subtly that I missed it. Wait a minute, what? “A man should know when to leave the party,” Control says. “Smiley is leaving with me,” Control says. And that’s that. These are men who reveal little, after all, Smiley most of all, so I missed the power struggle in those 14 words. Control is soon dead while Smiley swims with elderly men, head gliding above the water, at Hampstead Pond. At this point, we’ve been given three characters: two are now dead and one is retired. Alfredson giveth and taketh. He leaves us nothing to hold onto. The proper feeling for the rest of the story.
Besides, one of the characters turns out to be not dead, Prideaux, whom we see teaching French in some country school, recruiting a sad, fat kid to be his lookout. Is this a flashback? What is this?
Besides, one of the characters turns out to be not retired. When Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), a Scalphunter apparently gone rogue, shows up at the home of Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), the permanent undersecretary, with the same news that Control told Prideaux at the open— there’s a mole at the top of the Circus—Smiley is recalled to investigate. He reacts to this news quietly, without emotion, but his words pack a punch. “I’m retired, Oliver,” he tells Lacon laconically. “You fired me.”
But he accepts the job and chooses two men, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Mendel (Roger Lloyd-Pack)—impeccable, one assumes—and off they go, slowly and steadily.
Control’s suspicions centered on five men, whom he gave code names from a British children’s rhyme: Tinker, Tailor/ Soldier, Sailor/ Rich Man, Poor Man/ Beggar Man, Thief. (In the U.S., we borrowed the second stanza.) Thus:
- Tinker: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones)
- Tailor: Bill Haydon (Colin Firth)
- Soldier: Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds)
- Poor Man: Toby Esterhase (David Dencik)
- Beggar Man: Smiley
Alleline, with access to a high-ranking Soviet source, codenamed “Witchcraft,” has now ascended to the top of the Circus. Haydon, best friend to Prideaux, is a ladies man always sniffing after the new secretaries. (He even seduced Smiley’s wife, news that comes to us in pieces.) Bland is blunt, Esterhase a toady. It’s one of them. Or none of them. Since Smiley was not above Control’s suspicion, he’s not really above ours, either.
Other bits come into play. George visits Connie Sachs, a retired Circus researcher, dismissed because of her suspicions of a Soviet defector, Polyakov, whom she sees, in old footage, being saluted during a May Day parade. If he was a soldier, she asks, why hide it from us? But when she brought her suspicions to Alleline, she was told, as Control was told, that she was losing her grip on reality.
After interrogating Prideaux (he hadn’t been killed: merely shot and tortured for months), Peter and Smiley share a bottle of Scotch in a hotel room, talking about Karla, their counterpart on the Soviet side. It's a great scene. Smiley owns up that he once met him, in ’55 in Dehli, after Karla had been tortured by the CIA. “No fingernails,” Smiley says matter-of-factly, holding up his right hand. The assumption was Karla would be killed when he returned to Moscow, so Smiley tries to convince him to stay in the west, and talks about all we have here; then he talks about Karla’s wife, and how she’ll be ostracized once he’s killed, and surely he wouldn’t want that. It’s such a smart scene, and so beautifully acted. Time and again, we see Smiley lose himself in thought, in remembrance. I’ve read that some think Oldman’s performance in the movie is too minimalist, but there’s always something behind the minimalism. It’s not just a blank. And here? Where, tipsy, he’s allowed to show a modicum of emotion? My god. One wonders how actors lose themselves in thought this way. Smiley admits that in trying to win over Karla he’d revealed too much of himself—how much his wife meant to him—while Karla, silent, got on a plane, keeping Smiley’s cigarette lighter: To George, from Ann. All my love. But in revealing nothing, Karla had revealed something. Smiley:
That’s how I know he can be beaten. Because he’s a fanatic. And the fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.
Then he tells Peter (because he knows?) that Peter will now be a target and better get his house in order. Cut to: Peter breaking up with his boyfriend, then crying to himself when he’s alone. Earlier, Connie Sachs had greeted Smiley with the comment, “I don’t know about you, George, but I feel seriously underfucked.” Smiley himself, of course, is estranged from his wife, who had the affair with Haydon. These are the anti-James Bonds. It’s lonely out there for a secret agent.
Ultimately we get our answer, we find our spy, but the murkiness never goes away. The mole is not Alleline, the obvious choice, but Haydon, the best friend. He seduced Smiley’s wife at Karla’s bequest so Smiley wouldn’t be able to see him clearly. Smart. “Witchcraft” is bullshit. MI6 was played to get to the Americans. Control suspected but the higher-ups, like the permanent undersecretary, liked Alleline’s results and believed what they wanted to believe. It’s the numbers game all over again.
“Tinker Tailor” is a well-made movie for smart audiences. It conjures up the dread, ominousness, and moral ambiguity of the Cold War. It gives us a great lead performance and one of the best acting ensembles in years. But it’s a tough movie to come to cold. I was lost for much of the movie (like Smiley, I suppose), pieced it together only at the end (again, like Smiley), but feel I missed out on all the subtleties in between. I’ll probably go again. It’s a movie worth seeing but probably more worth seeing twice.