When it comes down to it, international intelligence agencies aren’t that different from organized criminal organizations. Underhanded and morally questionable activities? It’s all in a day’s work and all necessary if you want to save your family — or your country.
In “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” the most recent adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 novel, all Hollywood notions of British espionage are gone. Set during the Cold War, there are no car chases, no fancy gadgets and no intricate shootouts. In Le Carre’s world, major developments are made in tiny little rooms.
Le Carré — a former British spy whose work focuses on British intelligence — writes novels notoriously difficult to adapt, between their intricate plotlines and political intrigue. “Tinker Tailor” was previously adapted into a miniseries in 1979 and clocked in at nearly five hours. And watching this recent film, the reason becomes clear why — some of the characters feel underdeveloped and key relationships tend to round out the plot, though they do not necessarily invest the audience in the characters’ fates.
That said, the film moves briskly and efficiently. Director Tomas Alfredson, in his first English-language film, coaxes brave work from all his actors, particularly Gary Oldman. As newly-reinstated spy George Smiley, Oldman’s superb restraint clashes with traditional notions of acting. Everything he does has a purpose, suggesting his inner turmoil and haunted past. He is precise, smart and observant. He waits. He is a man you want on your side.
Within the confines of this dirty system of deceit and one-upmanship, Smiley is tasked with finding a Russian informant who works at the very top of MI6 (the secret intelligence service colloquially referred to as “The Circus”). Smiley knows them well because he was second-in-command to Control before a botched job years ago in Hungary went wrong. Now, hired by the Civil Service, Smiley investigates a recently commissioned MI6 project called “Witchcraft,” which he believes hides the identity of the mole.
Throughout the film, Alfredson builds suspense without any choreographed fight scenes or gunfights. Gunshots in the film are few, and when they happen, they are genuinely shocking. However, directorial mastery cannot make up for the messy script. And while the screenplay by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan doesn’t fall into this category, it will test even the most attentive of viewers with its references to characters who flit in and out of the story. Watch and listen closely and you will be rewarded.