In the early 1970s, the British Secret Service was scrabbling to rebuild after a Soviet spy ring, led by defector Kim Philby, destroyed the credibility of MI6. Just as the American CIA is beginning to trust the Brits again, an important operation is blown and a key British agent is gunned down. This triggers an investigation, led by senior agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman), into who is the “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”
The British Secret Service, following the botched Czech operation, turns intelligence chief Control (John Hurt) out to pasture along with his top field agent George Smiley. But, there is a mole burrowed in to the highest levels of MI6 and this Soviet spy has access to the most guarded secrets of the intelligence branch. Smiley is brought in by Her Majesty’s government to find the mole and plug the leak. This is where “TTSS” really kicks in and every highly place bureaucrat in the “The Circus” becomes suspect. The hunt is given the metaphor of a chess game where the suspects, and there are several, are assigned as pieces to be played by Smiley.
I remember reading John le Carre’s spy novel back in 1974 and, though a fan of the author for years, being challenged by the kaleidoscopic cast of characters and twisty plots. I watched the 1979 British mini-series, starring Alec Guinness, and, to say the least, I was confused by the intricate weaving of Smiley’s story. That faithful adaptation was, perhaps, too faithful. As such, I was a bit concerned that director Tomas Alfredson would do the same with his ensemble cast of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” The director, his writers and his who’s who cast of veteran British actors - Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, Mark Strong and Toby Jones to name a few - make the complex material coherent. I think the filmmakers capture the essence of the Le Carre novel.
The plots are so many and so intricate and the dialog so dense that I leave you to unravel this solid spy thriller and figure out whodunit. I give it a B.
Control (John Hurt) is concerned about a Russian mole in the midst of the Circus, especially at a time when the Brits need to keep face with the United States, so he sends Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong, "Sherlock Holmes") to Budapest on a mission that goes wrong. Control looks at the faces around him - Percy Alleline (Toby Jones, "My Week with Marilyn"), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds, "The Debt"), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth, "The King's Speech") and his oldest colleague, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), and posits just who is the "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy."
Perhaps the most well known of John le Carré's novels, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" was famously adapted into a BBC miniseries starring Alec Guiness as Smiley back in 1979. So, just how could this famously complex and dense story be whittled to less than half the length? The Swedish director Tomas Alfredson ("Let the Right One In") and screenwriters Bridget O'Connor ("Sixty Six") and Peter Straughan ("Sixty Six," "The Debt") have done just that by getting to its essence. While you'll be kept on your toes trying to follow the plot (none of the players ever see the whole picture, so why should we?), it's important to realize that the identity of the mole is not what is important here. What is is how a group of people living among us but not really seen grope around in the dark trying to work in a system which none of them can ever fully understand. Is what they do even relevant anymore?
The director of the moody, chilly vampire story was the perfect choice for this material and his star, Gary Oldman, gives a performance of great stillness and subtlety. Smiley has been called out of retirement by Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney, 2011's "Jane Eyre") to discover who the traitor in the Secret Intelligence Service is while also dealing with devastating personal betrayal, having discovered that his wife, Ann (her face is never seen in the film, just as the mole operates in secret), is having an affair with a colleague. Smiley must move quietly in both his houses, having to send his assistant, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch, "The Whistleblower"), to break into his own bureau for information. He visits an old colleague who was cut loose and Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke, "Elizabeth"), seen in flashback as one of the inner circle, is trying to find peace while struggling with nostalgia for the old days. The human toll is also evidenced in Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy, "Warrior"), a field operative who has fallen for a Russian, Irinia (Svetlana Khodchenkova) caught in political crosshairs.
The film's production design (Maria Djurkovic, "Mamma Mia!") is a key component of the shadowy world Alfredson creates, one of old men living in dusty old rooms piled with books where color is so muted it makes institutional green look lively. The 5th floor, where Control gathers his officers, is a vast area filled with pods where meetings can be soundproofed. Even in exotic locations, Circus members operate in back alleys and nondescript hotel rooms. An SIS Christmas party seems like an ironic bid for normalcy.
"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" eventually delivers its mole (beware the agent who shows his tell) and the emotion on display from the colleague sent to dispatch him tells speaks volumes about the lifestyle. And Smiley? Checkmate.
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10 | Video
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