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.