John Le Carre reportedly once said, “Seeing your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes.” Maybe so, but in the case of helmer Tomas Alfredson’s version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” the result is best likened to a perfectly seasoned consomme. An inventive, meaty distillation of Le Carre’s 1974 novel, pic turns hero George Smiley’s hunt for a mole within Blighty’s MI6 into an incisive examination of Cold War ethics, rich in both contempo resonance and elegiac melancholy. Finely hammered to appeal to discerning auds and kudo-awarding bodies, “Tinker” should do sterling biz.
Like the characters within the story who are all haunted by the past, the film itself has its ghosts. Older viewers will remember well the BBC-Paramount seven-part miniseries from 1979, which starred Alec Guinness as an avuncular, donnish Smiley. The show was a hit perhaps not just because of the intrinsically compelling espionage story: Following on the heels of Watergate and the fall of the Shah in Iran, which prompted a crisis of confidence in intelligence networks, “Tinker” chimed with an international sense of disillusionment with those in power. The notion that deep in the heart of democracy, those who were supposed to be its staunchest defenders might be unprincipled traitors, resonated with auds anxious about a volatile future.
Now, in the wake of corruption scandals that include the world banking crisis, this version catches the newest wave of disillusionment and anxiety. It may be a period piece, right down to the slacks flared just so and the vintage wallpaper, but it feels painfully apt now to revisit the early-to-mid-1970s, when things were just about to fall apart.
Scripted with surgical economy by Peter Straughan (“The Men Who Stare at Goats”) and his late wife and sometime collaborator, Bridget O’Connor (“Mrs. Ratcliffe’s Revolution,” “Sixty Six”) to fit a swiftly flowing 127 minutes, the plot reshuffles some of the novel’s events, changes a few locales and invents a few scenes, but the essentials are all there.
The action kicks off with Control (John Hurt) — the head of MI6 (Britain’s version of the CIA), colloquially known as the Circus — sending field spy Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) on a secret mission to Budapest to talk a Hungarian general into defecting. The general knows the true identity of the mole within the Circus, the man near the very top of the organization who’s been feeding vital secrets back to Karla, the Russians’ spy master. (Like so many of the story’s key characters, Karla is never quite seen.)
Control has narrowed down the suspects to five men, the first four often seen together like a menacing pack, and code-named them according to the old nursery rhyme: “Tinker” for careerist Percy Alleline (Toby Jones); “Tailor,” the urbane Bill Haydon (Colin Firth); “Soldier,” the formidable Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds); “Poor Man,” the weaselly Toby Esterhase (David Dencik); and a fifth, “Beggarman,” for Control’s right-hand man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman).
However, the mission goes terribly wrong, and sometime later, Undersecretary Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) recalls Smiley from retirement and charges him to find out who the mole is, since the evidence is mounting that Control, now dead from a heart attack, was right all along. In need of a man on the inside at the Circus’ London HQ, Smiley takes on Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) to retrieve documents for him from the Circus’ archives.
One of the pic’s biggest departures from the source is to weave in flashbacks to a Christmas party, a scene that was never in the book. The party sequence efficiently reveals how Smiley learned about his wife Ann’s infidelity, a crucial component in the theme of betrayal, and also sets an atmosphere and tone that makes this version of “Tinker” feel fundamentally different from its predecessor: Under unglamorous strip lights redolent of ’70s-era think tanks and the opposite of the gentlemen’s club atmosphere of the TV series, the men and women who work for the Circus look more like the pasty nerds real Mi6 people probably were then (and maybe are now). They may hold the fate of the Western world in their hands, but many of them are outsiders to the regular establishment.
Seeing spies letting down their hair has a streak of absurdity about it that recalls helmer Alfredson’s roots in comedy, evident in the breakthrough feature he made with troupe Killingganget, “Four Shades of Brown,” whose title might be a suitable description of the palette of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” It was a stroke of genius to hire the Swedish Alfredson to direct this oh-so-English material, not only for the sideways-angle European sensibility he brings to the table, but also for the flair for suspense, off-center framing and gloomy sympathy for outsiders he demonstrated in the pre-teen-vampire story “Let the Right One In.” Indeed, the way he and “Right One” lenser Hoyte van Hoytema shoot the quartet of mole suspects as an ominous cabal, huddled together in their coffin-like, soundproofed room within a room, gives them a vampiric, menacing appearance.
Casting is one of the pic’s strongest suits, with an ensemble that reps some of the finest talent working in Blighty. Everyone brings their A game, with Oldman setting the bar high as an eerily still, slightly sinister Smiley. Particularly worthy of mention are Cumberbatch, who in one charged scene gets across the cruel debt of silence secret servicemen will always owe, and Firth and Hurt, both in particularly choleric, amusing form. Kathy Burke (who starred in Oldman’s “Nil by Mouth”) has a vivid, salty cameo here as Connie Sachs.
Tech credits are aces, especially Alberto Iglesias’ creepy, stealthy score, which plays off well against the sound design, and kooky, wry soundtrack choices like a Julio Iglesias cover of Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea” and George Formby’s “Mr. Wu’s a Window Cleaner Now.”
For the record, while the press materials presented the film as “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” the onscreen title did not have commas.