Smiley. George Smiley. Reinterpreting John le Carré’s novel for the big screen director Tomas Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan drop the audience into the middle of a Cold War British spy tale centered around five senior intelligence officers under suspicion of being a Soviet mole.
Gary Oldman stars as George Smiley, the right hand of the former Head of the Service (John Hurt) who was pushed out the door with his friend. Smiley is coaxed out of retirement by Oliver Lancum (Simon McBurney) after an operation in Hungary ends in disaster when an agent (Mark Strong) is shot while trying to buy intelligence from a Hungarian informant.
Smiley is charged with discovering the truth of the rumor that there is a high-ranking Soviet mole inside the “Circus” (what those who work for MI6 and the SIS call home). To do so he will have to work outside the bounds of the Circus, hiding the fact that any investigation is in progress to some of the smartest and most paranoid men in the entire country.
The slow moving adaptation is probably easier to follow, at least initially, if you have read the book. Focused more on recreating the feel of the time and Cold War politics than your average American spy thriller, some might find the movie a bit dull or a little hard to follow. I know one critic who fell asleep at a screening. However, there is talent and craft present in almost every frame that patient viewers are sure to enjoy.
Smiley’s search leads him to investigate Prideaux’s (Strong) shooting and the secret source of Soviet Intelligence to the Circus (code named “Witchcraft”), of whom Smiley has always been wary. The further he delves into the investigation the more we learn about his relationship with the suspects, his wife, and why, of all the members of the Circus, Smiley (the most mild-mannered in appearance) is the most feared and respected by his enemies.
Although most stories related over the course of the film are shown in flashbacks there is one that is only told by Smiley to another agent (Benedict Cumberbatch) of the Circus. The conversation, which covers the relationship and test of wills between Smiley and the mysterious Soviet Intelligence officer known only as Karla (Michael Sarne), is used well to showcase how determined and committed Smiley is to his job and country.
Oldman is terrific in the role and the film surrounds him with talented UK actors including Hurt, Strong, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, and Amanda Fairbank-Hynes. In many was Tinker Tailor is the opposite of a James Bond action film. Although we do get a couple of action sequences, the focus here is on intrigue rather the more romanticized version of spy stories Hollywood has been in love with for decades.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy may not be what Americans think of when they hear the term spy thriller. They can certainly get something more along those lines with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, but this film is a much more intimate look at the life of a spy during an age where tensions were high and the fate of the world may have very well rested on a specific piece of intelligence that passed the desk of a man very much like George Smiley.