After twenty years of discussing John Le Carré's espionage novels with friends and acquaintances, I've converged on a one-sentence lede for describing them to those who haven't read them. Their reaction to this sentence is the best touchstone I've found for determining if they'll be interested in reading them. That sentence is as follows: "The Le Carré novels are a series of spy novels involving complex plots where absolutely nothing happens - but it is absolutely gripping as it doesn't."
In 2011, I happened across a film teaser trailer on the internet. That trailer showed Gary Oldman wearing a pair of thick-rimmed retro eyeglasses, wearing leather gloves, and expertly aged via makeup. The name of the movie: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Le Carré's flagship novel of the ascension of his main character, George Smiley. Starring Oldman. I had two overriding reactions: one, I was ecstatic. Two, however, I was very nervous that the production would get it wrong - would lose what made the book special.
Note: This review concerns *only* the 2012 movie. I have seen the 1970s BBC special with Alec Guinness but not for years and years. Also, SPOILERS for the first 10-15 minutes of the movie.
A brief plot summary, for those who haven't read the book: In the early 1970s, the elite British intelligence service is known in its trade as 'The Circus.' It is run by a man known only as 'Control' (played by John Hurt) who has apparently helmed it since its inception either during or just after World War II. The organization is deeply hierarchical, a reflection of British society, with a cadre of highly educated and experienced men atop what is a strange cross of a British civil service organization with a focused commando unit. The story begins with Control sending an agent off behind the Iron Curtain on what looks like a private mission. The agent, Jim Prideaux (played by Mark Strong) has barely made his rendezvous when he is surrounded and shot by Hungarian security agents. Control is forced out of office in favor of several of his subordinates who have advocated a much bolder approach, relying on a secret intelligence source they have developed in the Eastern Bloc. This source's intelligence has been stellar, lifting their credibility. With Control's on the wane, hurt by his private agent's failure, Control retires, taking with him his right-hand man, George Smiley.
It swiftly becomes clear, however, that there is a problem. There are many, many small hints, scattered throughout the hushed and geographically sprawling world of intelligence, that there is a mole in the Circus. A mole at the very top; a possibility that Control was obsessed with but which was dismissed as paranoia. Control has passed away, bitter at the end; the government official responsible for overseeing the Circus decides that the mole story must be investigated, so he turns to the one man he's fairly sure it can't be - George Smiley, retired and out of the game. Smiley is brought back for his deep knowledge of the Circus and its operations, and with that the hunt is on.
The 2011 movie is something that the original book wasn't, something which should distract from the tale but actually doesn't. It's a period piece, as although the book was written in the 1970s, it's now (obviously) 40 years on. The movie, then, is laboring under the need not only to tell a complex story which relies intimately not only on minute details but on expository information given in the book which must be worked into characters' speeches or into material evidence even the audience can interpret. It succeeds at this, and this is its strength. As I mentioned at the outset, if you just watch the film with half or even three-quarters of your attention, it is a pair of hours in which absolutely nothing seems to happen save for a few brief bursts of violence rendered even more shocking by the contrast - but you would be completely wrong.
An enormously complicated plot of bitter rivalries, hatreds, patriotism and passions is hiding in this reserved British play. What's brilliant about it is that unlike most celebrations of the reserved English drawing-room mystery, this one's outcomes are tied intimately not to the reputations of the players, or to the inheritance of money or title, but to the Cold War and its own pitched battles. With that, the maneuvers and the snubs, the patience and the cool reserve all take on the mantle of weapons on a battlefield - weapons used with lethal and precise effect in order to prevent the lurking kings of the Cold War chessboard from entering the fray.
The period setting is brilliant. Although it mostly takes place indoors, or in a few anonymous outdoor locations (which makes things easier) that doesn't detract from the genius. The shops, the clothing, the offices, the cigarettes, the office technology, the cars - all perfect. They help to bring home the alien nature of this struggle to modern audiences; the whole notion of fighting grimly to defend something as dreary as this 1970s British government service existence should confuse and alienate a modern audience which doesn't remember why the fight happened or what it felt like. But it doesn't, somehow. The tension, the risk, the terror - they're all there, and they're woven into the dreariness and the beige and the tweed and the brown and the grit. Instead of being a mind-numbing cocoon of half-forgotten interior decorating and sexist office politics, the very times themselves become instead the symbol of wartime sacrifice, akin to the rationing and the blackouts of World War II so familiar from war films.
At its base, this movie is a manhunt. It is a chase, not of a fugitive evading and eluding, but of one coolly and professionally hiding among the hounds. There is no shortage of power to bring the quarry down, no shortage of teeth or gun, but there is no target - and worse, the quarry is carefully and precisely covering his tracks, to the point of confusion, terror and death.
The title of the book (and the movie) is taken from a children's rhyme. Control has assigned code names to each of the suspects, based on this rhyme. The movie is the story of the determination of which of them is the mole.
Rich man, Poor man
If you like drama, if you like espionage, if you remember the Cold War - do yourself a favor and watch this movie. Just be sure you're not sleepy, and that you're willing to do your part - watch and listen carefully, like the Circus analysts you will be introduced to. Watch over George Smiley's shoulder as he conducts the hunt with the crooked quarter-smile and elliptical moves of a devious chess player. Revel in storytelling that can, somehow, make a gold 1970s Citröen DS menacing.
And hunt the mole. Tinker. Tailor. Soldier.
Which is spy?
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Studio Canal films
127 Minutes run time. Rated R for violence and sexual themes.
John Hurt - Control
Gary Oldman - George Smiley
Toby Jones - Percy Alleline
Colin Firth - Bill Haydon
David Dencik - Toby Esterhase
Ciaran Hinds - Roy Bland
Benedict Cumberbatch - Peter Guillam