Movies: "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" | Arts & Culture
When the first movie adaptation of a John le Carre novel, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”, hit the screen in 1965, it was in stark contrast to the popular James Bond franchise. (“Thunderball” came out that same year.) Instead of a dashing, deadly secret agent, the character played by Richard Burton was seedy and tired, and the plot centered more around his masters’ double-crossing than his own heroics.
Also, he got killed in the end.
Le Carre knew his tradecraft, however. He had actually been a British spy during the Cold War, stationed in Germany. To be fair, Ian Fleming also served in British Naval Intelligence during WWII, and helped plan the famous “Man Who Never Was” caper that deceived German forces during the Allied invasion of Sicily. But le Carre’s war was very different from Fleming’s: it was a cat-and-mouse game played against “an infinity of mirrors,” as one famous spymaster once described it.
That is pretty much the scenario set forth in “Tinker Tailor,” a brilliant, low-key take on the Kim Philby affair that almost undid MI6 back in the 1950s. We’re in the midst of the Cold War here, in the mid-1970s, and British agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong, for once not playing a bad guy) is dispatched to Budapest to help Control (the great John Hurt) uncover the Soviet mole he is convinced is at the very top of his spy agency.
When Prideaux is shot down, heads roll at MI6, including that of veteran spymaster George Smiley (Gary Oldman, in a terrific, quiet performance). But even though he is now outside the agency, Smiley is called upon to investigate the circumstances that led to Prideaux’s betrayal -- which means he’ll have to look into his former colleagues: Alleline (Toby Jones, who played Truman Capote in “Infamous”), Esterhaze (David Dencik, of the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), Bland (Ciaran Hinds, of “Munich”) and Haydon (Colin Firth of “The King’s Speech”). Talk about a cast of characters!
To help with his investigation, Smiley recruits a young agent still in the fold, played by lanky Benedict Cumberbatch, the most recent TV Sherlock Holmes. The plot will take us to Istanbul and Paris before it winds up right where it began, at “the Circus”, the charming nickname of London’s MI6 headquarters.
“Tinker Tailor” was directed by the brilliant young Swede Tomas Alfredson, whose 2008 “Let the Right One In” was such an original take on vampire movies. It was co-written by the late Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan. Le Carre not only co-produced the movie, but actually appears briefly during a Christmas party at the Circus. Many of us watched the BBC television series based on the same novel, starring the unforgettable Alec Guiness as Smiley, and for obvious reasons, the movie has pared down the plot. But the atmosphere of tension and the betrayals, personal and political, are all still here.
The cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema, who worked with Alfredson on “Let the Right One In”, is muted in tone, as is the jazzy, atmospheric music by composer Alberto Iglesias (“The Kite Runner”). As with “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”, “Tinker Tailor” stands in glaring contrast to today’s high-voltage spy movies, including Bond, Bourne and “Mission Impossible.” But its quiet tension and brilliant performances will register with discerning filmgoers long after the last noisy stunts from those movies are forgotten.
It’s rated R for violence and some sensual moments; I give it an A. It really is one of the best movies of the year, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some Oscar nominations result.