Actors so rarely get paid to sit still. This week at the movies, as Tom Cruise is on Imax screens playing a frantic, hamster-like intelligence gatherer in the new Mission: Impossible movie, we also have a superb adaptation of the John le Carré spy novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Its central character, George Smiley of the British Secret Intelligence Service, does not smile much, or give anything away. He sits. And watches. And waits for his adversaries—one of whom is a double agent working for the Soviets as well as the British—to make a fatal mistake.
Smiley is played by Gary Oldman in director Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation, and he’s onscreen for nearly 20 minutes before uttering two words. “I’m retired,” he says to an old colleague at “the Circus,” also known as MI6. He is about to be un-retired by the man (played with marvelous melancholy by John Hurt) called Control, who is aware of the presence of a mole among his ranks. The year is 1973. (Le Carré’s novel was published in 1974; the justly revered British TV miniseries version, starring Alec Guinness as Smiley, was first aired in 1979.) This is a time when news of a Hungarian general deciding to “come over” is able to create a rippling pond of betrayal, deceit, the revelation of what’s behind the erosion of Smiley’s marriage—everything that Shakespeare wrote about when, in Hamlet, he noted: “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.”
Reading le Carré’s novel in high school, I’d never before encountered such a murky universe in the guise of popular entertainment. Smiley is not for everyone; he is a diffident smudge of a man who happens to have superior analytical and espionage skills. Yet the coarser and more sadistic our pop diversions become, the more crucial le Carré seems to me today. He does not bother with turning spy games into delightful, larky escapism. Nor is he especially sanctimonious about a man such as Smiley, or his dodgy co-workers, all of whom have agendas.
The supporting spies include Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones (the greatest sniveler in contemporary movies), Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Simon McBurney—remarkable character actors all, and together a formidable ensemble of muttering, furtive underplayers. While it was a pleasure to luxuriate in the many hours of the ’79 miniseries, director Alfredson’s handling of the two-hour edition of the story, shrewdly compressed by screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, honors the source material in its focus on the little things, the storm clouds gathering above the heads of its spies, and the light of truth dawning, slowly, over Smiley. Alfredson made the excellent vampire thriller Let the Right One In, and his knack for brackish, enveloping atmosphere is rare indeed.
Oldman does so little to snare our attention in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that he risks sliding sideways out of the frame in every scene. Yet he’s so astute with the tools he deploys, namely his voice and his eyes, that Smiley becomes a low hum of an energy source, informing every new development. Alfredson and his crew shot the film in Budapest and Istanbul as well as in England, but we are a long way from the panoramic vistas of the average Bond or even Bourne film. Instead, le Carré’s characters come alive in tight, dark, enclosed spaces.
This is one of the finest achievements of the year, and while it’s easy to lose your way in the labyrinth, I don’t think Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is most interesting for its narrative pretzels. Rather, it’s about what this sort of life does to the average human soul. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (R) ★★★★☆