Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Despite the cascade of critical praise splashing down on the new Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it’s not hard to imagine the movie being greeted with bafflement, and possibly boredom, by many viewers, especially those who’ve never read the 1974 John le Carré spy novel on which it’s based, or who are unfamiliar with the 1979 BBC miniseries of the same name, which is superior in every way.
Le Carré’s story, set in 1973, at the height of the Cold War, is expansive in scope and intricately plotted. The BBC production took nearly five hours to tell it; the new movie, directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), runs a bit more than two hours, which just isn’t enough time. (Le Carré himself, an executive producer of the film, clearly disagrees.) Inevitably, there’s been some radical compression, along with an injection of strange twists and additions. And then there’s the cast, which we’ll get to in a moment.
The story, in outline, remains the same. There’s been a coup at the Circus—the British intelligence headquarters, situated on London’s Cambridge Circus traffic roundabout. The head of the service, an aged and ailing spymaster known only as Control, has disgraced himself with a bungled operation in Czechoslovakia aimed at flushing out a Soviet mole whom he’s convinced has infiltrated the top echelon of his Circus chieftains. Control soon dies, and his partisans are rudely dispersed, among them his loyal deputy, George Smiley, who is forced into retirement. Control is replaced by a lugubrious buffoon named Percy Alleline, who has recently acquired a hot new source of intel—a Soviet double agent code-named Merlin. Smiley, like Control, had from the beginning seen this wondrous new asset as too good to be true.
Then the mole theory comes alive again, with higher-ups in the Foreign Ministry finally persuaded that Control was right. Smiley is recalled to track down the traitor, who must be either Alleline or one of his three subordinates: gruff Roy Bland, velvety Bill Haydon, or the devious Toby Esterhase. Smiley and his devoted aide, Peter Guillam, get right to work, and the old spy’s meticulous investigation, as recounted at length in both the book and the BBC series, is gripping.
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One of the joys of the earlier production was its cast of exceptional British character actors, especially Ian Richardson as the sleekly condescending Haydon, Bernard Hepton as the comical Esterhase, and the late Ian Bannen as Jim Prideaux, a tragically double-crossed Circus operative. Some of the actors in the new film aren’t given enough screen time to really imprint themselves on the story, and are thus sometimes hard to keep track of. Ciarán Hinds, as Bland, barely registers; David Dencik is a colorless Esterhase; and diminutive Toby Jones and amiable Colin Firth are miscast as Alleline and Haydon. Only Tom Hardy, as a key figure named Ricki Tarr, manages to break through. But Hardy is such a vibrant, Brando-esque presence that he overbalances this otherwise glum movie.
The centerpiece of the BBC production was Alec Guinness’ celebrated performance as Smiley, a man socially at sea, cuckolded by his wife, at home only in the tangled underbrush of international espionage. Smiley’s greatest assets are his penetrating powers of observation and his unnerving stillness (confronted by his doleful gaze, the subjects of his interrogations feel compelled to keep talking just to fill up the silence). Guinness was able to make these recessive characteristics signify, and he was mesmerizing.
Gary Oldman, that fine actor, has been given the unenviable assignment of following in Guinness’ footsteps, and, possibly because of the new movie’s cramped design, he hasn’t been afforded the latitude to bring Smiley fully alive—the character now seems like a man who simply doesn’t say much. He has also been tweaked in curious ways. Le Carré’s Smiley, faithfully portrayed by Guinness, was a dowdy bookworm, devoted to reading among the “minor German poets.” Oldman’s Smiley has a surprising dedication to fitness (he swims a lot), and at one point we see him quietly watching television—an appliance that Guinness’ Smiley was not known to possess.
There are other oddities. A hostile rendezvous between Prideaux (Mark Strong) and a scummy Czech agent—an occasion for roaring action in the book and the BBC version of it—has now been relocated to Budapest, for some reason; it begins with the two men sipping coffee at an outdoor café, and comes to a quick and bluntly unexciting conclusion. We also don’t see the revealing flashback to a New Delhi prison, where a younger Smiley confronts the man who would later become the Soviet master spy Karla; instead, Oldman just tells us about it. It’s also unclear why Guillam—whose obsession with a mysterious woman named Camilla introduced another level of betrayal into the original story—is now depicted as being gay.
The picture’s most disfiguring flaw comes at the end, after the mole has been caught, but is still being tracked by one shadowy character. In Le Carré’s original conception, this long, complex section of the story ends in an emotional spasm of startling violence. Here it’s simply thrown away, an inexplicable narrative deflation.
There’s no reason that viewers approaching this movie without knowledge of its long-ago origins should care that a lot is missing. Still, sitting through its rushed episodes and occasional confusions, most unfolding in dull shades-of-brown settings, they still might wish for more than turns out to be there.
Charlize Theron is that rare big-screen beauty who’s willing to subvert her looks in order to fully inhabit a difficult character. She did it to play a grotesque real-life killer in the 2003 Monster (for which she won an Oscar), and she does it again, in a different way, in Young Adult, portraying a woman whose ugliness is all on the inside.
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