The Cold War oeuvre of John le Carre is so redolent of the recent climate of obssessive intelligence gathering that it’s surprising that a new adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy didn’t come down the pike sooner. But perhaps that was because of the superb 1979 miniseries starring Alec Guinness in an indelible performance as spymaster George Smiley. Yet it’s also fortunate, since in director Tomas Alfredson the material has its perfect overseer. The grim, moody, and secretive ambience of Alfredson’s breakthrough film, Let The Right One In, has served him excellently in establishing the claustrophobic, mistrustful mindset of the uppermost echelon of a 1970s British espionage agency, referred to as “The Circus” (M-15 and M-16, from which le Carre, a real-life spy, was outed by a double agent).
Within the worn-down, impersonal offices of the agency (savvily re-created and utilized), where somebody is always keeping an eye on someone else, operatives play cat-and-mouse in labyrinthine bids for power. The former chief known as Control (John Hurt) has been decommissioned, and the more aggressive and pro-American Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) is calling the shots. Alleline has an important Soviet source and a priority operation code-named Witchcraft; meanwhile Control has come to the conclusion that there is a Russian mole within the agency, and even the top players (the “tinker,” “tailor,” “soldier” and “spy” of the title) are not above suspicion. But retired spymaster Smiley (Gary Oldman) is, and he is brought back to surreptitiously uncover the mole.
And so it unreels, this intelligent (what Bond was to the box office, Smiley was to the best-seller lists) and suspenseful funhouse of espionage—where taped conversations play in the background of live ones and the line between false information (“chicken feed”) and hard intel blurs and dissolves like bicarbonate of soda in a glass of whiskey. Also seeping into the proceedings are the knowledge that British intelligence is “the leaky ship” of the intelligence community, nostalgia for a “real” war, bureaucratic penny-pinching, and the omnipotence of a Jackal-like operative called Karla.
Smiley quietly, reticently feels his way through this morass, looking, and listening, and listening some more, defined by the oversize glasses that make him look like an owl, and discarding all assumptions even when bolstered by fact. Oldman uses nuance as calibrated as a Swiss watch to oh-so-incrementally indicate his character’s intent, except for the scene when he reveals Smiley’s Achilles’ heel: his marriage to his unreliable wife, Ann (Katrina Vasilieva).
This tightly interior milieu occasionally opens up into flashbacks of pivotal events, some of which are almost shocking in comparison to the banality of evil that marks the agents’ work. Oldman’s masterstroke is the same as his character’s: He lets the other players position and reposition themselves around him while he seemingly recedes, only to reemerge in an unexpected checkmate. This is ensemble acting at its finest, with Hurt rising to the first role worthy of him in a long time, and superlative support from Jones, Mark Strong as the Hungarian connection, Tom Hardy as a rogue agent, and especially, Colin Firth as slick Bill Hayden.
Though viewers may find themselves succumbing to the endless deceptions and futility that the agents are up against, Smiley’s sure-footed intuition and tactical mastery bring the proceedings, and the film, to a higher level of intrigue.