If you’re a fan of spy fiction, you’re pretty much covered this Christmas no matter which flavor you like. For people who like the big and improbable and outrageous, with action to spare, there’s Brad Bird’s “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” and if you prefer the more thoughtful, quiet, real-world approach, prepare to bask in the glory of Tomas Alfredson’s new film version of the John le Carre classic, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”
I’ve been addicted to spy stories, both fiction and non-fiction, since I was very young, and one of the things I remember as a formative event for that interest of mine was the broadcast of the TV version of “Tinker Tailor” that starred Alec Guinness. I tuned in because of Alec Guinness, who I already knew and adored from “Star Wars” and “Bridge Over The River Kwai,” and at first, I was disappointed because I thought all spy movies were supposed to be just like James Bond films. As the series progressed, though, I got drawn into this world of quiet power plays, a world where the most dangerous men weren’t the ones who looked dangerous, but the ones you barely noticed. I read the le Carre novel, and then read the rest of the books featuring the same character, George Smiley, and that led me to read non-fiction about the history of MI6, and then that led me to reading about the American intelligence community, and a lifelong obsession took hold.
The screenplay for this new adaptation by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan is a fairly impressive effort at condensing a sprawling piece of work into a lean, efficient narrative. It’s probably the most famous of le Carre’s novels, and it makes sense that this is the one that they chose to adapt. It’s not the first of his novels dealing with Smiley, though. He’d already had a fairly full career and a forced retirement or two by the time the events of “Tinker Tailor” rolled around, and it’s very smart the way this film suggests a full history for these characters without getting bogged down by it all. Part of me hopes that Alfredson and these writers decide to do the second and third books in the “Karla” trilogy, and they’ve been careful to leave enough threads in play at the end of this film that they could pick up with “The Honourable Schoolboy” in a few years.
Even if they don’t, what they’ve built here is a powerful reminder of the virtues of a smart script that treats its audience like they’re smart as well. This is not an easy film to fully decode up on first viewing, and I have to assume that my familiarity with the material gave me an advantage. This is about small struggles for power between men whose whole lives are dedicated to secrecy and who have made their careers out of burying their feelings and their personalities. We look at this now, and it feels like a period piece, but when le Carre wrote it, it was as contemporary as possible. Le Carre had a real background in intelligence, and what he was writing about was the way things really worked in a world that most people didn’t fully understand. Smiley is a fascinating character because he’s exceptional at his work and barely functional as a human being. I get the feeling many of the people who worked in the intelligence world during the Cold War were wired the way Smiley is in this film, and as much as it’s a spy thriller, it’s also a strong piece of anthropological observation, a look at the human failings that complicated what should have been very precise work.
The film, like the book, deals with a mole hunt inside “The Circus,” which is the nickname of MI6’s highest inner circle, and Smiley is brought out of a forced retirement because he has so little personal connection to the men he’s asked to investigate, no matter how long they’ve known him. There’s a phrase that was used to describe the sort of spy that this movie deals with, the “little grey men,” and I love the way Alfredson has etched the details of this world. While I think the older TV mini-series version spends more time with the characters and the story points, this film does a much better job of capturing a sense of time and place, and it casts a very subtle spell. Like “Let The Right One In,” this is a film where the biggest dramatic moments are distinguished by the restraint that’s used in how they’re depicted. Alfredson seems almost allergic to letting his drama get overheated, and so you end up leaning in, listening closely, afraid you might miss some hushed comment or some tiny gesture, and the result is that you feel like a participant in the mole hunt, not just an observer.
The cast is preposterously good in the film, and it’s nice to see Mark Strong in a role like this amidst his current Hollywood run of Big Unsubtle Bad Guys in Silly, Silly Movies. Gary Oldman is positively inspired casting as Smiley, and while I love it when Oldman gets big and crazy in films like “The Professional,” I also think he is underrated as a source of quiet power. When he gets very still and very subtle, you can’t stop watching him. He’s so good at conveying what’s happening behind his eyes that he doesn’t need the fireworks, and in a film like this, where everyone’s repressing so much about themselves, everyone’s got to be able to both play perfect straight-faced poker and also suggest everything else that’s going on inside. It’s a delicate balancing act for any actor, but when you’ve got a bench that includes Toby Jones, Colin Firth, John Hurt, David Dencik, Ciaran Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Graham, and Tom Hardy, you’re dealing with people who all bring their A-game, and there’s not a weak performance in the entire thing.
On a technical level, the movie’s completely exquisite. The cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema is just as impressive as the work he did for “Let The Right One In,” and the score by Alberto Iglesias makes his second great one this year, in addition to “The Skin I Live In.” Overall, Alfredson demonstrates such a complete handle over the aesthetic elements in the film that I am willing to put him on a very short list of filmmakers working today who I trust unreservedly. Now I just hope enough people see this film for us to get the second and third films with the same creative team in place, because this could be a chance to do the definitive “Karla trilogy” on film. They’re off to an amazing start.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” opens this Friday.