Director Tomas Alfredson’s big-screen adaptation of John Le Carré’s novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy (1974) constitutes the second filmization of the work, following an acclaimed 1979 miniseries starring Alec Guinness. Set in the early ’70s, this version recasts Gary Oldman in the Guinness role, as George Smiley, a septuagenarian English spy called...read more
Director Tomas Alfredson’s big-screen adaptation of John Le Carré’s novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy (1974) constitutes the second filmization of the work, following an acclaimed 1979 miniseries starring Alec Guinness. Set in the early ’70s, this version recasts Gary Oldman in the Guinness role, as George Smiley, a septuagenarian English spy called out of retirement to assist his former colleagues in ferreting out a Soviet “mole,” rumored to have infiltrated the upper echelons of the British intelligence agency, referred to here as “the circus.”
Of all the ways to potentially fail in bringing its source author to the screen, Tinker avoids the most obvious and daunting pitfall: unlike, for instance, screenwriter Loring Mandel’s abominable Le Carré adaptation The Little Drummer Girl (1984), it’s entirely lucid. Le Carré owns a reputation for byzantine narratives with dozens of tangential subplots, and one can easily imagine a klutzy
screenwriter trying to bring one of the author’s sprawling novels to the screen and confounding the audience with minutiae. Not only does that not happen with the Alfredson film, the opposite can be said: scribes Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan Mrs. Ratcliffe’s Revolution organize the material as carefully as a jeweler piecing together the gears of a pocket watch. The film is a marvel of narrative design: each scene falls perfectly into place, contributing a necessary piece of the exposition, and although we never once feel lost within the story, only at the end does the entire schema come into focus, with two revelatory scenes where we suddenly grasp the master structure.
The film also nails Le Carré’s tone: it received advance praise as an “exploration” of Iron Curtain-era ethics, but “evisceration” might be a more suitable word. These are sad, bitter, isolated characters, both riddled with paranoia and (especially in Smiley’s case) drained of some vital emotional dimension -- and the film repeatedly and effectively drives home its conviction that a twisted Cold War rationale, shaped by transnational brinksmanship, second-guessing and doublespeak, made each of them this way. The movie’s color scheme literalizes the sense of environmental causality, with many scenes shot in open air, and yet not a single instance of direct sunlight for over two hours.
This may make the film sound deadening. It isn’t, primarily because of the exhilaration derived from watching an entire ensemble of outstanding British character actors -- including John Hurt, Tom Hardy, Ciaran Hinds and Colin Firth -- working at the top of their game. Oldman, as usual, is particularly superb: though given a lead character with severely limited emotional range, he succeeds at making Smiley both convincing and persuasive, and best of all, pulls off the challenge of bringing home a character at least 20 or 25 years older than he himself is. The film also gets a boost because Alfredson, Straughan and O’Connor manage to find an emotional center in a couple of moving subplots that branch off of the Smiley chronicle. One involves a young spy who rescues a battered wife from her slime-bucket husband, and inadvertently falls in love with her; the other concerns a homosexual relationship between two of the top British agents. In very different ways, the resolutions of both arcs each touch on the personal fallout and the inhuman cruelty inherent in the politics of personal relationships among Cold War operatives.
And yet, paradoxically, herein also lie the film’s problems. While the existence of such threads is commendable, they not only take a backseat but occupy far too little screen time, especially the story involving the two men. That one could be a real heartbreaker, and would likely provide a better springboard into an earnest look at the period’s ethos than what is onscreen, were it placed closer to center stage. While one can fully understand why the screenwriters didn’t do this -- they were obviously most concerned about getting the narrative logistics of the George Smiley story right, and making it comprehensible -- it doesn’t change the fact that we feel a bit emotionally short-changed when the closing credits roll. In the final analysis, the movie’s failure to explore its two most affecting substories at greater length is what holds it back from its full potential, and makes it merely very good in lieu of superb. And if nothing else, this -- when held up next to the unmitigated success of the Guinness miniseries -- may merely serve as a reflection on the fact that it’s impossible to do complete justice to a Le Carré novel within two hours. But even taking its flaws into account, the Alfredson film is still the most successful big-screen transposition of its author since Sidney Lumet’s The Deadly Affair (1967). As such, it merits a recommendation.