Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Part 2 of an ongoing series, "The Smiley Files," examining the career of George Smiley in literature and film. Read my introduction to Smiley here.
Tomas Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan have done the impossible: they’ve boiled down John le Carré’s complex, nuanced, and epic 400-page novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy into a sleek feature film running just over two hours that still manages to retain the nuance and most of the complexity of the book. And, amazingly, they’ve done it in such a way that it moves at a brisk enough clip to never feel slow, but still allows the story enough breathing room that it never seems rushed, either. On top of all that, through some sort of unknowable alchemy, they’ve managed to retain all the most important plot points and nearly all the characters from the dense novel! Le Carré compared the process to turning a cow into an Oxo (bouillon) cube. The cube I'd compare this film to is a small box that somehow manages to hold an astounding amount of stuff inside. A box that, once unpacked, you can’t fathom how it possibly contained all those individual items, and you’re fairly sure you could never re-pack it so economically. That must have been what the process felt like for the writers and director. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, quite simply, a master class in the art of successfully adapting one medium to another.
Additionally, placed for comparison next to the 1979 BBC miniseries adaptation of the same material (as its makers must have known it inevitably would be), the new version serves as an example of how the same material can be faithfully—and successfully—adapted in very different ways. John Irvin’s 7-hour miniseries, penned by Arthur Hopcraft, meticulously reproduced the novel almost chapter for chapter. Scenes in the miniseries played out almost exactly how they did in the book, yet it still managed to leave out enough things to distress die-hard fans of the novel, or to devote too little time to scenes that this reader thought should have been drawn-out, Hitchcockian setpieces (like Peter Guillam’s illicit retrieval of a secret file from the Circus library). The new film takes the opposite approach. The adapters alter almost every scene, some drastically, and restructure the entire plot so that it unfolds in a completely different (generally more chronological) order... yet still manage to retain the essence of the novel in, I would say, an even purer form. This time, there were no scenes from the novel whose absence I seriously lamented, and Alfredson highlighted every moment I wanted to see highlighted—including Guillam’s sneaky file snatch.
George Smiley (Gary Oldman, The Dark Knight). The new chief is scowling Scotsman Percy Alleline (Toby Jones, Captain America) and his trusted lieutenants are Toby Esterhase (David Dencik, both versions of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth, Another Country) and Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds, Munich). When an errant “scalphunter” (slang for an itinerant field man who’s sent to do dirty work in trouble spots) named Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy, Inception) contacts the Circus’s cabinet overseer, Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney, Body of Lies) claiming to have evidence that one of these top men is a Soviet agent, Lacon hauls Smiley out of retirement to investigate Tarr’s claims. With the aid of scalphunter boss Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock), Smiley unravels an exceptionally cunning and devious, multi-layered plot orchestrated by his unseen opposite number in Moscow Center, the mysterious Karla. What he finds will not only take a terrible toll on the Circus itself, but also on Smiley’s personal life and wellbeing.
deceptively sharp Smiley to pinpoint the pertinent details, or trap his interviewees into revealing them), the encounters in the movie are generally much more straightforward. And yet the overall plot is complex enough (yes, you will have to devote your full attention to this one) that the sheer number of stories and witnesses, and the mystery of their direct relation to the central question of the identity of the mole, adds up to the same air of practiced deception as the book, where nothing is quite as it seems because all of the characters have been trained to obscure facts by second nature, to cling to secrets—often without even realizing it. So that isn’t lost, and neither is Smiley’s impressive perception, since we witness it on a more macro level as he puts all the pieces together. (You barely even notice him assembling the larger pieces when reading the book, since you’re so engrossed in the smaller minutiae.)
Alfredson and his team meticulously recreate Seventies London from its dire fashions and hair to the cars to the smoke-filled conference rooms of the ramshackle Circus headquarters. The movie never goes for obvious, beat-you-over-the-head Seventies pop culture shorthand, either (which is to say, we don’t see Smiley shuffling past a group of platform shoed Ziggy Stardust wannabes or see Guillam rocking a Brett Sinclair ascot—though he does kind of sport the real world equivalent), but instead focuses on the every day mundanity of the era. Alfredson’s Seventies isn’t the Seventies we see on ITC shows of the era, which were desperate to celebrate their times with the most outrageous fashions and furniture; it’s the Seventies of middle-aged civil servants who probably had zero awareness of any cultural shift going on around them as they focused on the geopolitical shifts instead, and worried about their under-heated offices or weak coffee.
The younger stars also hold their ground ably against such formidable veterans. Benedict Cumberbatch makes a fine Peter Guillam, and the extra-textual irony of TV’s current Sherlock Holmes playing Smiley’s Watson is enjoyable as well. Unlike the character of the books and previous screen versions, this Peter Guillam is gay. That seems, out of context, to be one of the movie’s most major departures from the source material, but like all the changes it actually makes sense in the context of the film. Like so many seemingly questionable changes to the source material, it proves to be a helpful shorthand, in this case to portray the dear personal price this character pays for his career in one scene what took le Carré many vignettes in the book. Tom Hardy, too, delivers a particularly impressive performance as Ricki Tarr, a rogue in love. (Plus, he looks better in his semi-hilarious Seventies wig than he does with his current real haircut!)
The Smiley Files
Read my introduction to the character of George Smiley here.