There are two ways to approach a viewing of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the impressive new adaptation of John le Carré's 1974 novel about espionage and cold-war paranoia, and one of them is far more rewarding than the other.
Previously adapted in a superb 1979 BBC mini-series starring Alec Guinness, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy concerns the hunt for a Soviet double-agent in the highest echelons of the British intelligence service. In this version, expertly directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), the story opens with Control (John Hurt), the head of the agency MI6 (aka "the Circus"), sending an operative to Budapest as part of a plan to uncover a mole. When the mission goes terribly wrong, Control is forced into retirement, along with his number-two man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman).
Some time later, however, Smiley—whose own obsoletion makes him the most trusted man available—is recruited back to the Circus to head up the investigation and discover which of his former colleagues is the traitor Control suspected. The prime suspects are the four senior men in MI6: Alleline (Toby Jones), Haydon (Colin Firth), Esterhase (David Dencik), and Bland (Ciaran Hinds). What follows is an austere, melancholy chess game of subtle moves played for global stakes.
The 1979 version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy had seven hours to unfold the complicated plot of le Carré's novel: this film has two, and thus the adaptation by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan necessarily compresses the story in a way that does the novel justice but allows little room for investment in the outcome. (The ultimate resolution of the mystery, for example, is inevitably something of an anti-climax: though the actors playing the various suspects are all wonderful, we are not really provided the time and space to get to know the characters well enough to be emotionally concerned about any one character's ultimate guilt or innocence.)
So the least rewarding way to approach Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is as a mystery or thriller: attempting to figure out "whodunit"—let alone trying to follow the investigation down the labyrinthine conversational corridors that lead us to the culprit—is an exercise in headache-inducing frustration and ultimate futility. I'm not saying it can't be done—the story does, in the end, make sense—but the effort of doing so will almost certainly destroy your enjoyment of the film. Forget popping out mid-film to relieve your bladder: I found myself concentrating so feverishly on every word spoken that I was afraid to sneeze lest I become completely lost. (During one critical scene, I missed a few seconds of the film's dialogue—the couple behind me began talking, no doubt asking one another for clarification—at which point I felt I might as well give up on trying to follow the plot altogether.)
In the end, of course, the puzzle is not the point, but the fact that the film inspires such furtive attention to detail is tremendously to its credit, because the real goal of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy—at which it succeeds perfectly—is to immerse us in this cold-war milieu of duplicity and paranoia. It is a world in which absolutely no one and nothing can be trusted, but in which everything—every gesture, every object, every fact or event—might have significance. Early in the film, for example, Jim Prideaux (an excellent Mark Strong) is meeting a potential defector in an outdoor cafe in Budapest, and Alfredson achieves almost unbearable tension by putting us in the point of view of the nervous agent. Both Prideaux and Alfredson's camera notice every single thing around the cafe: there is a woman with a baby; a car drives up; there is an old woman looking out a window; some shutters suddenly open on a nearby building; the waiter is sweating. It's a semiotician's nightmare: what matters? What information is vitally important to survival, what is coincidental, and what is just noise?
So, while the plot is engaging and smartly constructed, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is best approached as a study of mood, period, and character: it captures—brilliantly—a peculiar era in history and a way of life that is almost unimaginable to most of us. What elevates le Carré above other spy novelists is that he is interested in espionage as a culture, and in what it means to live among people for whom lies, betrayal, and manipulation are simply second nature. This is no glamorous world of tuxedo-clad spies and high-tech gadgets: there are a few gunshots in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but nearly all the important plot developments occur in quiet conversations, and hinge on quick glances and furtive reaction shots. A handsome field operative (Tom Hardy) is the closest thing we have to a James Bond figure, but he is ultimately a pawn in a game he barely understands: the real players are a small group of mistrustful men in rumpled suits, a generation out of step and fighting to hold onto their dwindling power.
First among these, of course, is George Smiley. In the novel, le Carré describes Smiley as unassuming to the point of invisibility: "Small, podgy, and at best middle-aged, he was by appearance one of London's meek who do not inherit the earth." Smiley is a brilliant spymaster, in part, because he goes unnoticed among the louder, more aggressively ambitious men around him. A silent watcher and thinker, Smiley is probably the smartest man in any room he's in, and he's all the more effective because he doesn't need other men to know it. Few actors would have been up to the challenge of this role after the indelible performance by Alec Guinness in the 1979 mini-series, but Oldman is a marvel of minimalism: in every scene, we see this incredible mind working behind the polite stare.
We see, also, the failures of humanity that make men like Smiley so good at their jobs. Smiley's wife Ann has left him—after having an affair with one of his colleagues—and Oldman's face conveys both the pain of that loss and the recognition of its appropriateness. Ann, throughout the film, is only glimpsed from behind in flashbacks: even in memory she remains elusive, the representation of happiness and human connection that will forever elude men like Smiley, who are somehow incomplete and ill-suited to real human relationships. We see young Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), who plays Watson to Smiley's Holmes, forced to make a choice between his personal life and his job. We see the retired agent Connie Sachs (in a brief but fantastic performance by Kathy Burke), living alone in a boarding house, watching young people in love and longing for the glory days of her youth. ("I don't know about you, George," she says to Smiley, "but I feel seriously under-fucked.") And we see Hardy's young field operative, who is not smart enough to know when he's being used but is smart enough to know he doesn't want to become one of the men who are using him. "I want a family, thank you," he says, late in the film, when he's trying to get out of the Circus. "I do not want to end up like you lot."
And—unspoken, but ever-present—there is the question of whether the sacrifices they've made have been worth it. ("Don't you think it's time to recognize that there's as little worth on your side as there is on mine?" one character recalls saying to his Soviet counterpart.) These are old men with schoolboy mentalities, desperately fighting to justify their lives and stay relevant in a game that has largely moved them off the board. This pervading mood of obsolescence is itself justification for this fine remake: when le Carré published the novel in 1974—and even when the 1979 TV adaptation was made—Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was a contemporary exploration of a British intelligence agency caught in the middle of an escalating cold war between the Russians and the Americans. Now, it's a poignant period piece, an impeccably realized recreation of an empire at the moment of decline, and of the white old men left to play against each other when the real game moved elsewhere.
I look forward to watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy again, and on that second viewing I will not worry so much about keeping up with the details of the plot. Instead, I plan to luxuriate in the perfect, cigarette-stained, polyester-draped atmosphere of the film. (Much credit must go to director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema, who previously lensed Alfredson's Let the Right One In and David O'Russell's The Fighter. Van Hoytema paints Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in a palate of dull office grey and early-'70s green that perfectly suits this oppressive, depressive cold-war era.)
And I will revel in the performances, particularly the preternaturally still enigma of Oldman's George Smiley. Gary Oldman has long been recognized as a fine actor, and yet his Smiley is a revelation: he embodies this complicated, decent, world-weary man completely. It is the kind of performance that seldom wins awards because it appears to be doing so little, but every clever machination of Smiley's mind is there in Oldman's eyes, and he wears on his face and body decades of shame, betrayal, and compromise. It's the role of a lifetime for Oldman, and far and away my pick for best male performance of the year.