The conference room of British intelligence’s top official in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is visually deceptive. The walls of the room are coated with acoustic soundproofing foam which, at first glace, looks like a brown and orange checkered design, a sort of perverse nod to the ghastly design aesthetic of the 1970s. Closer inspection, however, reveals it to be the alternately raised and depressed foam casting shadows, giving the illusion of a checkerboard design. That is how the film unfolds. Characters think they are one a checkerboard, but find they are on something else entirely. Nothing is as it seems and no one can be trusted. It’s great touch that, unfortunately, isn’t as well supported by the construction of the film itself.
When juggling as much information, clues, innuendo, history, office politics, and sexual shenanigans as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does, a firm, coherent director in harmony with a stellar editor, is crucial to making a good picture. As it stands this, the newest incarnation of the John le Carré story, is competent without being remarkable. It gets bogged down by the intricacy, often sacrificing coherence for pushing the plot forward, but still bungling crucial scenes and exchanges. Everything is blurted out too fast and little time is spent acquainting us with the unfamiliar world and lexicon of le Carré’s spy world. Of course those of us who have read the book and seen the much superior BBC miniseries (which at more than six hours had to time to linger on detail we miss here) will have no trouble following the plot. Others will not be so lucky.
The plot, though, is delicious. Sometime during the 1970s, it is discovered that someone at the top of British intelligence, known as the Circus, is a Soviet spy, a mole planted in the service to both spy on the British and feed them fake intelligence. It is believed that it can only be one of four men at top of the service, each one instrumental in helping to establish the legitimacy of a secret Soviet contact that has been feeding them with information the rest of the government considers gold. But is it? And what have they been giving in return?
Through reasons that aren’t entirely clear until much too late, the Minister who oversees the Circus begins to take these allegations seriously and enlists George Smiley to help smoke the mole out. Smiley, once a high ranking officer who was forced out after a botched mission in Budapest, takes the suspicions seriously, finally beginning to understand why things went as they did in Budapest and why he was forced out. He realizes, in short, that he was dangerous to the Soviet mole and had to be discredited. Now, however, he is the perfect person to secretly investigate his past co-workers. He’s a former intelligence man, outside the loop, and, most importantly, forgotten.
The rest of the picture is a high-tension foray into office politics, most of the players not even aware that they are suspected and being investigated for treason. Smiley visits one former Circus member after another, each one having been forced out shortly after he left. The thing they all have in common is they raised red flags about the Soviet source valued so highly and, as a result, had to be discredited.
It is these individual scenes that work so well, watching Smiley unravel the mystery through these discussions. Unfortunately they are ordered so haphazardly that the audience rarely gets a chance to get their footing. For instance, more than one person says they doubted the former director’s suspicions about a mole, but why do the same people suddenly believe it? What has happened to suddenly warrant the investigation?
Of course in the book and miniseries we know why. We are treated to the story of rogue agent Ricky Tarr right up front and, from his story, we know why they are taking these charges seriously now. In this version, he doesn’t emerge until much later, after the investigation is well under way. But it seemed crucial for us to know his story so we understand why high ranking officials would investigate their own intelligence officials.
This isn’t a fatal flaw. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) still manages to put together a somewhat successful spy thriller. And, let’s face it, it’s nice to see a grown up thriller that assumes its audience has some smarts. He is ably supported by strong performances all around from the likes of Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, and Ciarán Hinds.
Gary Oldman is especially impressive, since he has to reinvent a character first fleshed out by Alec Guinness. Not an easy task. Guinness’ Smiley was devilishly clever, observant, shrewd, but broken. Years of back-stabbing office politics and devotion to an unfaithful wife have crushed the already emotionally-reserved man’s spirits. But there is a reserve of strength bubbling beneath that apparently battered surface. His soft-spoken Smiley comes alive during this investigation, rarely raising his voice, never coming undone. He comes alive inside. His brain is working overtime to catch the traitor and, not incidentally, the man who disgraced him. Oldman does not copy Guinness’ interpretation, but does a variation on it.
Oldman’s Smiley is less the broken man, more the emotionally stunted man. There was nothing to break here; he was always stunted. His only strength was in his work. Take it away and there was little left. This investigation brings back his life. Oldman successfully humbles his natural screen presence, emotionally stooping down if you will, to overcome the massive characters he has embodied in the past. (Think Dracula, Joe Orton, Sid Vicious, even Beethoven.) He suppresses all of Smiley emotions, expertly communicating them to us only through his eyes. Rarely is there a gesture or expression that helps us to put our fingers on what he is feeling. It’s all in his eyes. Norma Desmond would be proud.
While Gary Oldman delivers a masterfully subtle performance, we are left feeling let down by the rest. This isn’t a bad movie, not by a long shot. But it has big shoes to fill. Individual scenes and some of the performances spark our admiration, but the whole reminds us that it’s falling short of its potential and not doing the story justice.