George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a recently retired MI6 agent, is doing his best to adjust to a life outside the secret service. However, when a disgraced agent reappears with information concerning a mole at the heart of the Circus, Smiley is drawn back into the murky field of espionage. Tasked with investigating which of his trusted former colleagues has chosen to betray him and their country, Smiley narrows his search to four suspects – all experienced, urbane, successful agents – but past histories, rivalries and friendships make it far from easy to pinpoint the man who is eating away at the heart of the British establishment"¦
In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tomas Alfredson’s devastatingly compressed take on John Le Carre’s classic espionage novel, you constantly see log books and file folders, tape spools and transcripts. It is 1974 and at the drab London headquarters of The Circus (MI6) information takes a physical form and a personal toll. Alfredson puts the camera in a dumbwaiter, along with files, and they’re transported from floor to floor, and throughout the movie information has a tangible quality. It is not the abstract digital content of a contemporary spy thriller that is in play here, rather the lives of those who try to make sense of the endless inputs.
'Nothing is genuine anymore," snarls the Circus’ ailing head, Control (John Hurt), whose underlings have a new source of information, codenamed Witchcraft, secured from the Soviet Union and leveraged into a personal fiefdom. Everything in this film, which drips with a drab, everyday paranoia, has a consequence, and to be at the top is to suspect the most and know the least. When Control’s belief that he has a Russian mole in his organisation leads him to send an operative, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), to bring in a possible Hungarian defector, the operation is blown and with the resulting international incident Control is dismissed along with his favoured subordinate, George Smiley (Gary Oldman).
Quiet to the point of intractability and seemingly British to the core – he swims the breaststroke so he can keep his glasses on – Smiley’s dismissal makes him the best candidate to subsequently investigate his former colleagues: Witchcraft’s keepers Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), who has replaced Control, Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) and Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds). Another report of the high-level mole comes back from Istanbul via a field agent, Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy), and it’s fascinating to watch Smiley coerce and instruct someone of Hardy’s physical primacy.
In the 1979 BBC mini-series adaptation Alec Guinness played Smiley with gnomic watchfulness, but the ruthlessness is tellingly overt in Oldman’s portrayal, whether Smiley is deceiving Tarr or instructing his assistant within the Circus, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) to steal files or take protective measures within his personal life. Cumberbatch, with his bright open face, is the kind of innocent that struggles to survive in such a bleakly amoral environment, and he’s a cipher for the audience’s exposure to the investigation, which writers Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan have expertly condensed, streamlining the complex plotting but retaining the murk of personal intrigue that is as dense and grim as 1970s London.
Suffused with grain, bereft of primary colours (the reds really are the enemy), the environment coaxed into being is one where betrayal feels everyday; everyone is lying about something. Smiley himself is not just hunting for a mole, but also dealing with the infidelity and latest absence of his wife, Ann, and the picture makes clear his struggle to understand the two figures his life revolves around, his wife and the Soviet spymaster codenamed Karla. Alfredson makes love an adjunct to deception in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; one can’t exist without the other.
You never fully see either Ann or Karla, and that’s one of the ways Alfredson visually shapes the mass of information. The Swedish filmmaker, whose previous film Let the Right One In also explored tangled allegiances forged in the dark (it was about a little boy’s friendship with a female vampire), will cut from the arrival of someone to their departure, letting a single reaction shot explain what has transpired. Information is prized here – it must be considered and appraised. It also means that a rare monologue, such as Smiley recounting his one meeting with Karla, is all the more powerful.
There’s much to be read on the faces of the impressive ensemble cast, with an atmosphere of furtiveness and snide Oxbridge gentility permeating proceedings. 'Distaste, disdain, revulsion"¦ they are the nouns of England," wrote the drama critic and diarist Kenneth Tynan in 1973, and Alfredson has crafted, for all the authentic spycraft and garish wallpaper, a triumph over that sensibility by one of its own. The Russians may have a mole within MI6, but when Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has concluded with an elegantly sweeping selection of shots, consider whether George Smiley was also a mole, politely waiting there all along until he had reason to strike back. Only an outstanding film could cover such ground so astutely and leave you wondering whether you need to start your enquiry all over again.