Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011 film).

I rate John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy among the best suspense novels I have ever read, a wordy but incredibly tense spy novel from 1974 that borrows from the great detective novels of thirty to forty years prior. Hearing Gary Oldman was set to play the lead in the first adaptation for the theaters was exciting and worrying, not so much about Oldman but about how well such a dense book could be adapted to the two-hour constraints of the modern cinema. The worry was needless, as the adaptation, while dispensing with much of the detail of the book, is extremely faithful to the novel’s plot, and one of the most intense smart films I have ever seen.

(I have not seenthe six-hour BBC adaptation from 1979, starring Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley, so I can’t offer a comparison – and, given the differences in duration and thus most likely in pacing, perhaps I’m also not hampered by the comparison either.)

The four words in the film’s title refer to codenames for five* senior British intelligence officers, one of whom is a Soviet double agent, referred to as “Gerald” in the book but only as “the mole” in the movie. As the movie opens, we see a botched operation in Budapest that appears to leave another British agent mortally wounded, after which the head of the unit, known only as “Control,” and senior agent George Smiley (Oldman) are sacked. Several months later, after Control’s death, Smiley is approached by Oliver Lacon, the civil servant who oversees MI6, the domestic intelligence agency known colloquially as “the Circus” (for Cambridge Circus, where Le Carré has located MI6’s offices), to lead an off-the-books investigation to identify the mole. Officially retired, Smiley recruits the young Peter Guillam, still employed by MI6, and one other retired agent to find out how Budapest truly went awry, what happened in Istanbul with rogue agent Ricky Tarr, and to ultimately set the trap into which the mole will walk.

*The fifth is Smiley, who is absolved from guilt when the investigation begins, while the name “Poorman” is used for the remaining suspect.

Oldman plays Smiley with tremendous understatement, especially in comparison to roles like Stansfield or Sirius Black, very much in keeping with Le Carré’s Smiley, who, even when beset by inner turmoil, rarely lets it reach the surface, and prefers to conduct his interrogations as the facilitator rather than the aggressor. This is a film of absent looks and tense pauses, with Smiley setting up the pins for others to knock down. Whether this is Best Actor nomination material or not depends largely on performances I haven’t seen by other actors, but its subtlety might mask its degree of difficulty to the point where voters overlook how key Oldman’s performance was to the film; his one great scene, reimagining a conversation with a briefly captured Soviet agent in Delhi several years previously, nearly explodes with Smiley’s emotional turmoil (and the symbolism of the purloined lighter), yet never quite boils over. One can only imagine the American remake, what with smashed lamps or over-the-top profanity or whatnot.

Aside from Oldman, the cast reads like the leading British actors were all fighting each other to get parts in the film, resulting in some powerful performances by big names in modest roles. Colin Firth appears as the caddish Bill Haydon; Ciarán Hinds (perhaps known best as Albus Dumbledore’s brother in the last two Harry Potter films) is underused as Roy Bland; John Hurt, as Control, is apparently morphing into Ian McKellen; Stephen Graham (of Snatch and Boardwalk Empire) has a critical cameo; and Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays Sherlock Holmes in the current BBC series starring that character) is even more critical as Peter Guillam, as tied up by internal demons as Smiley yet less able to restrain them. Even Tom Hardy, as Ricky Tarr, the one character who shows substantial emotions in the film (crossing the line into the pathetic, a deviation from the literary Tarr), manages to avoid sliding into the melodramatic.

The pacing of Tinker Tailor is outstanding, a direction set in the opening sequence, where the screenwriters have heightened the tension by putting the blown operation first. I remembered just enough of the book to follow the story without trouble – I actually remembered the codename of the mole, but not his actual identity, so I wasn’t sure of the ending until the big reveal. However, if you haven’t read the book, the film doesn’t waste much time with explanatory material, and it might take you a few scenes to figure out who’s who and what exactly is under investigation. The flashback scenes aren’t that clearly delineated from the present-day investigation, since they only go back a year or so and can’t be distinguished with hair and makeup. Karla, the fanatical KGB super-agent who never appears in the film except in flashbacks where only his torso is visible, also never receives any sort of introduction before characters begin referring to his existence. We lose some of the backstory of the four suspects, but it’s less necessary in a film that revolves around Smiley and the unraveling of the intrigue, rather than, say, the psychological motivation of the traitor.

The upside of the lack of long-winded explanatory passages is that the film drops you right in the heart of the action, grabs you by the throat, and spends two hours daring you to breathe. And yet there are no cheap, mass-market gimmicks to turn a taut, intelligent spy novel into a mainstream action flick; the furthest it panders is the occasional bit of inserted humor, or the on-screen death of a character whom I think was merely presumed killed by the Russians in the book, but nothing that changes the plot itself, which is ideal as the plot is the book’s greatest strength. (Connie Sacks’ one laugh-inducing line, while funny, is hopelessly out of tune with the rest of the movie, unfortunately.) Deviate from the details if you must, but when the plot’s the thing, leave it be, and the screenwriters – one of whom died at age 49 of cancer before the film was released – did just that.

The only real issue I had with this adaptation is the ending, where the final exposure of the mole’s identity is cut quite short, replaced with a series of wordless scenes set to a recording of “La Mer,” a great song that seemed forced here in a film so reliant on silence through its first 120 minutes. I could have done with less of that, especially the final flashback to the agency holiday party, and more with Smiley confronting the turncoat. It was an average finish to an otherwise plus film, one I’d gladly see again to watch for details I missed because I was so engrossed in the plot.


  1. The flash back periods could in fact be distinguished by Gary Oldman’s glasses. The film opened with him purchasing a new pair. Great film!

  2. If true (and I’m not doubting you), that’s too subtle. I didn’t catch it, nor did the friend with whom I saw the film.

  3. I read the novel in its heyday, and reveled in the Alec Guinness portrayal of Smiley – it was impeccable. I’m looking forward to seeing this version, but can’t see how it can compare in depth to the original mini-series. It was one of the best adaptations of a novel I’ve ever seen – it stands with Lonesome Dove as the pinnacle of that form.

    I’ve reserved the DVDs of the BBC series at my public library, but I’m 36th on the list, which means I might see it sometime in 2013.

  4. More on Smiley’s glasses here.

    Thanks to B&N’s 50%-off BBC DVD sale earlier this month, I watched the BBC/Guinness production last week. Perfect casting, from Control, Alleline, Esterhase, Haydon, Bland, et al. down to Roach/Jumbo. Guinness takes such command of Smiley that, turning back to the novel, I barely recognize le Carre’s version: “Small, podgy and at best middle-aged . . . His legs were short, his gait anything but agile, his dress costly, ill-fitting.” The glasses are essential to the character here too, from Guinness’s owlish look to the psychological implications of watching, blind spots, etc. Given it’s length, the BBC series resembles the novel in pacing and detail, though events are occasionally shuffled or omitted. It certainly never drags, and its division into hour-long episodes means you don’t have to set aside great chunks of time to watch it.

    Looking forward to seeing the new production. Thanks for the review, Keith.

  5. I, too, was a fan of the book when it came out and had seen and been impressed with the Alec Guinness version. I saw the new version with some trepidation, the same you had Keith, about cramming the plot into two hours. In general I liked it, but I have a few complaints.

    1) Gary Oldman is imitating Alec Guinness, even down to his speech patterns. It’s not a dead-on imitation, but it’s clearly inspired by Guinness. I would prefer he would take the challenge on and carve out a new interpretation of Smiley. He didn’t make the role his own, in my opinion, which is a must for a memorable performance.

    2) The suspected characters are so held in the background that you get almost no sense of their personality, especially Ciaran Hinds. He’s wasted. Now I’m certain that the initial cut was 3 hours and the filmmakers either were forced to cut it down by the producer/distributor or felt themselves that they couldn’t hold an audience’s interest for that length of time.

    3) Plot points were so obliquely unfolded that they were hard to follow. Since I had a leg up from having read the book (albeit 30 years ago) I kept up reasonably well. But my wife, who was unfamiliar with any version of the story, really had no idea what was going on after a while. Normally, I enjoy that kind of story telling, but in this instance I think a little more clarity would have lent itself well to this version.

    4) A corollary of above: how did Smiley locate Prideaux? Perhaps I missed it, but I didn’t get it. He just shows up in front of Prideaux one day. Keith, if you can explain I would appreciate it.

  6. 1) Never seen the original, so I can’t compare, but Oldman was on NPR earlier this month and said that he spoke to Le Carre, who encouraged him to make Smiley his own, which Oldman claimed he did (or intended to do). I don’t think he was deliberately parroting Guinness, at least.

    2) I agree – I think they focused on the two most likely of the four, to the detriment of the other two.

    3) I didn’t have that issue, but I have read the book.

    4) Through a payment, a few months after Prideaux’ death, to his code name Ellis.

  7. Great movie. I think Tom Hardy’s performance merits a Best Supporting Actor nod from the Academy.

  8. Keith-

    If Tinker Tailor is successful, and it looks like it will be, do you think this will open the door for films based on the other two books?

  9. 4) Above: I got the clue about the payment that Smiley deduced that Prideaux was still alive, but I didn’t catch how he knew his location. And the clue you refer to is somewhere in the middle of the movie (if I recall correctly), well before he locates him. It seems he would have found the check and then moved promptly to locate and interview Prideaux, but that didn’t happen. If he knew where he was why wait? Anyway, I’ll watch the movie again and see if I can pick up the thread.

  10. I watched the movie again last night. There is no explanation of how Smiley located Prideaux. At roughly 40 minutes into the movie Smiley discovers the check sent to Prideaux, relates it to Gwillam, who comments, “I wonder where he is.” Obviously, Smiley does not know his location. Much later in the movie he shows up at Prideaux’s trailer and interviews him, but doesn’t explain how he came to find him.

    So much of this movie is about de-emphasizing plot points: important conversation is put off-screen; questions are asked then answered in oblique ways or by visuals or not at all; schemes are set in motion without telling. It’s all about forcing the viewer to put 2 and 2 together to get an answer–an sometimes you only get one of the clues and not the other. It’s a very well made movie, but I still think it has some clarity issues that could make it more enjoyable.

  11. I guess I didn’t see it as a stretch to track down the guy who cashed the check. The big revelation was that a check was cut to a dead man, meaning he probably wasn’t dead. Finding him in England after that seems straightforward. Had they found him off the grid in a cabin on the coast of Albania, I would be more perturbed.

  12. TTSS finally arrived here in The Boonies today, and I caught the matinee. Considering the filmmakers had a mere two hours to unfold a narrative that le Carré paced so slowly and that the BBC stretched to six hours, I was impressed. My few beefs, with SPOILERS:

    1. The filmmakers were certainly intent on subjecting Irina to graphic violence at every opportunity. Even before we see her face for the first time, we (and Ricki Tarr) watch her husband slam it repeatedly against a curtained window. This does not occur in the novel. After a multi-scene respite with Ricki, she returns to her hotel room to find her husband disemboweled in the bath. This does not occur in the novel. Much later, we (and Jim Prideaux) are subjected to the disgusting spectacle of Irina having her brains blown out. This does not occur in the novel, or rather it occurs off-stage. None of these changes improve the narrative. Irina’s beating lends Ricki’s approach to her a clichéd damsel-in-distress tone, and her execution in the novel–reported by an unnamed source, referred to, never eye-witnessed by any of the characters–is more in keeping with the narrative’s themes of screening, blind spots, hearsay, and uncertainty.

    2. Why on earth does Prideaux shoot Haydon instead of snapping his neck, as in the novel? Prideaux longs to regain the physical, and presumably sexual, intimacy he once shared with Haydon–hinted at in the film by photographs of a long ago embrace, and in the novel by Haydon’s own gushing letter recommending Prideaux for MI6 recruitment during their time at Oxford. Haydon, however, keeps Prideaux at a useful distance and, during the Christmas party flashback in the film, even seems to tease him with the promise of reunion. Only by killing Haydon with his bare hands does Prideaux achieve that physical reunion. (Though le Carré, as he so often does, shields the act from us and leaves us to imagine the fatal embrace.) To boot, the shooting wastes the foreshadowing of Prideaux’s breaking the bird’s neck in the first classroom scene.

    3. Most disappointing, and even disorienting, was the film’s hunky-dory ending. I kept expecting a counterpoint to Julio Iglesias’s jovial, swelling rendition of “La Mer,” but none came. If ever a film called for an all-is-right-with-the-world closing montage, this is not that film. It’s as if, after two hours of absolutely nailing almost every shot, the filmmakers went suddenly and bizarrely tone deaf.

    As for something the film succeeded at, and a topic that is discussed in comments above, Smiley’s glasses are a remarkable feat of costuming. Not only do the two pairs of glasses, which I thought were drastically different, help establish past as opposed to present events, but they also present two different Smileys. The change in glasses occurs, appropriately, just after Smiley and Control are booted out of the Circus. Smiley walks in the optician’s wearing elegant, smart tortoiseshell frames and walks out wearing dowdy, thick square ones. The crisp, bright eyes we saw in the opening meeting at MI6 are now flattened, almost hooded. Already middle aged, Smiley now looks definitively retired, out of the game. This is of course why he’s perfect for the job Lacon presents him: not only is Smiley “outside the family,” but he looks it.

  13. In response to Maccapee’s comments, I agree that the treatment of Irina seemed excessively harsh. However I disagree on the importance of how Prideaux kills Haydon. The impression I took away was not that he wanted to regain a physical intimacy, but rather that he was performing an act of kindness to his former friend and lover. Before he fires the shot, he and Haydon appear to make eye contact; almost as if Haydon is giving his consent. It is different from the book, but to my mind far better than the representation in the television series in which Ian Bannen’s Prideaux kills Richardson’s Haydon with his bare hands but it appears to be a simple act of revenge, all subtext gone.

    As for the ending, I disagree that the montage and choice of music was intended to be seen as suggesting that all was well with the world. It was a flashback to supposedly happier times, except any nostalgia was based on the false premise of the Circus “family” which in fact was undermined by mistrust and betrayal. The one positive outcome is that Smiley returns to the Circus, but even then it’s clear that he has an unenviable job. I think the ending is a bit smarter than you give it credit for. I do however feel it was a little lazy since it veered a little too close to the ironic trick of setting incongruously upbeat music to scenes of horror or violence, which has been massively overused in the cinema of the last few decades (Tarantino being the worst offender).

  14. Michael Schuler

    I thought that the new movie was well done, given the complexity of the book. I do have a few observations related to comments already posted:

    1) The party scene worked as a means of condensing some back story points (notably Anne having an affair with Bill) and possibly highlighting the change of the characters from friendly idealists to infighting promotion-seekers. Personally I thought it was a very poor fit with the rest of the movie, mostly because the montage-with-music format seemed like it was tacked on during the editing to allow cutting of important scenes.

    2) In the BBC series (and I think the book) Esterhase’s motivation to reveal the safehouse location was to show that he wasn’t the mole; his doing all of the legwork for Witchcraft (either to curry favor with Alleline or make himself invaluable) made him look very suspicious. The movie simplifies this to Esterhase not wanting to get sent back to Vienna, which weakens Le Carre’s focus on Circus politics.

    3) Prideaux seems much less bitter/agressive in the 2011 version than the book or BBC series. He is the head of the scalphunters section prior to his shooting and is portrayed in the book as a very physical ex-military type, so his hands-on killing of Bill makes more sense. His nickname of Rhino really doesn’t fit the character in the movie. The 2011 movie changes (a sadder Prideaux shooting bill from afar) is internally consistent, at least. The movie does lose his shadowing of Smiley and tracking down of the mole’s location, unfortunately.

    4) I thought that Gary Oldman does a very good job of showing Smiley as a colder, more determined character than Alec Guinness did (i.e., how he tells Prideaux that all his agents had been killed to try to soften him up and the bottles he brings to the alcoholic Sachs and Prideaux for the same reason). Guinness was excellent but definitely made the character less morally-ambiguous.

    5) After watching both the BBC series and movie (twice each), I was surprised how closely both follow the general plotline of the book. Only one real character appears to be missing from each (the assistant sent to assist Prideaux). Pretty good given that the series was three time longer.

    6) The changes that I most object to relate to Ricky Tarr: making him a sympathetic character, all of the added violence related to his story (none of which advanced the plot), and his coming to Smiley rather than Guillam (his boss). Why would he choose Smiley?


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