TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY: Worth A Ticket – An Epic of Betrayals
John LeCarre is (I guess one should say “arguably”) the greatest of all spy novelists, and his 1974 TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY is “arguably” his finest work. Incredibly, the 1979 BBC miniseries adaptation lived up to the level of the novel, featuring an (please–this isn’t even arguable) iconic performance by Alec Guinness that was legendary even in the context of his great career.
So, no pressure on the filmmakers determined to remake it… and squeeze an exceptionally labyrinthine plot into 128 screen minutes. And yet, to a remarkable degree, those filmmakers, led by director Tomas Alfredson, screenwriters Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor, and with Gary Oldman in the Guinness role, have succeeded, making a cerebral thriller faithful to the spirit and much of the letter of LeCarre’s novel.
Oldman, like Guinness before him, plays George Smiley, the recessive and brilliant mandarin of the British Foreign Intelligence Service, known colloquially as the Circus. Shortly after the story begins, the head of the Circus, known only as Control (John Hurt) and Smiley, his closest aide, have been forced into retirement after a mission in Budapest turned disastrous. That mission was intended to unearth information about a mole at the highest level of the Circus, a double agent Control had narrowed down to his 5 closest aides: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), code-named “Tinker,” Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), known as “Tailor,” Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) or “Soldier,” Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), the “Poor Man”… and Smiley himself, presumably the “Beggarman.” After the Budapest mission and Control’s exit, the search for the mole went away. But when the rumor of a mole arises again, and with the 4 main suspects now running the Circus themselves, a politician with oversight authority over the Service brings Smiley back to unofficially determine whether Control was, after all, correct.
This sets off a virtuoso set of ever-deepening complications, as Smiley and his (unseen) Soviet counterpart Karla, along with their respective minions, try to outmaneuver each other by crisscrossing false leads, cover-ups and intentional dead ends. The recurring theme is betrayal, as everyone involved, on both a professional and very personal basis, ruthlessly undercuts whoever gets in their way, often taking from them what they most value in the world. Ideology hardly figures into the game–as a traitor explains at one point, devastating choices can be made for reasons of aesthetics as much as for political convictions. Everyone involved is brilliant, cunning and fully capable of making big-picture decisions under deadly pressure.
Alfredson previously directed the vampire art movie Let the Right One In (remade in the US–not by him– as Let Me In), and his commitment to LeCarre’s exhausted, almost existential viewpoint is faithful almost to the point of fetishism. Although Alfredson is more than able to deliver a suspenseful crescendo when one is called for, no one involved with Tinker, Tailor seems to have worried about hyping up the action component of the story to find a wide audience (and probably the film won’t)–Hoyte van Hoytema’s photography seems gray even in sunlit scenes, and Alberto Iglesias’ score is uninsistently mournful.
The wonderful supporting cast comports with the film’s overall style, although here is where the novel’s compression into 2 hours takes its toll. In order to squeeze a comprehensible version of the plot into a feature running time, something had to go, and in this case it was the complexity of some of LeCarre’s characterizations. One of the film’s real problems is that none of the prime suspects gets to establish a memorable presence, which makes the emotional component of the search for the spy less involving than it should be. (The final confrontation between Smiley and the mole doesn’t have nearly the fireworks that it did in the miniseries.) Only Tom Hardy, as a Circus agent caught in the crossfire between Karla and Smiley, and Mark Strong, as the agent involved in the Budapest fiasco, really have the chance to develop backstories.
As for Oldman, he gives several subtle nods to Guinness’s definitive Smiley, from the shape of his eyeglasses to some of his inflections. It can’t be said that he displaces Guinness as the actor who will first come to mind when the character’s name is mentioned–Oldman doesn’t quite have Guinness’ minimalist genius for suggesting waves of feeling under an impassive countenance (then again,who does?)–but as the story develops and gradually, almost imperceptibly, Smiley emerges from the shadows to take his place at center stage, Oldman’s performance becomes increasingly more commanding and richer in shading.
Tinker, Tailor isn’t, frankly, for everyone–it’s the anti-24 as spy stories go, offering satisfactions of the mind rather than the gut. It takes its time, to an extent almost revolutionary in contemporary Hollywood entertainment, and forces the audience to think, and consider, along with its characters. Like the technology of its 1970s setting, it’s hand-crafted, a little slow, and quite marvelous to behold.