We don’t really need another version of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” John le Carre’s much-admired espionage novel received a superbly intricate and intelligent seven-part treatment in the 1979 British miniseries.
But le Carre aficionados and newcomers alike should, regardless, find lots to savor in director Tomas Alfredson’s big-screen version of the author’s Cold War story. The film is a splendidly moody period drama and a smartly crafted pleaser.
Less a thriller than a solid, detailed procedural and an intrigue-filled dip into the career-spy psyche, the film is helmed by Alfredson, who made the snowy Swedish tween vampire story “Let the Right One In.” He continues to explore the experience of being an outsider and isolation, but with a different brand of spook and a chill that is as psychological as it is climatic.
Gary Oldman plays the former Alec Guinness role of George Smiley, the misleadingly named, stoic-faced, keen-minded spy for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, called the “Circus.”
Forced to retire, along with his Circus chief, known as Control (John Hurt), after a Budapest mission goes wrong, Smiley returns to action to investigate Control’s suspicions that the Circus has a mole who has been passing secrets to the Soviets.
Suspects include Control’s ambitious successor Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), dubbed “Tinker”; suave Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), aka “Tailor”; steadfast Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), “Soldier”; and slippery Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), “Poor Man.”
We also meet dirty-jobs agents Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) and Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) and Smiley’s younger assistant, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), as Smiley’s probe goes into tributaries and flashback terrain.
Also pivotal, in absentia, is Karla — the Soviet spymaster behind the Circus’ mole. Smiley’s memory simmers with recollections of a long-ago encounter with.
Like many literary adaptations, the movie sometimes plays like a chopped-up book squashed into two hours. Important characters seem cheated.
But the combination of Alfredson’s atmospheric direction, Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s thoughtfully shaped screenplay adaptation, and superb British acting result in a thoroughly absorbing, intelligent film about a culture thick with paranoia, betrayal and warped patriotism, and a livelihood in which a particularly troubling institution mentality usurps individuality.
Crucially, the filmmakers don’t abandon what seems to be a driving concept of le Carre’s: that the good guys, with their dirty compromises and bloody deeds, may not be morally superior to the enemy.
Human factors (Smiley thinking about his unfaithful wife, Ann) and humor (a Circus holiday party where Santa Claus appears in a Lenin mask and everyone sings the Russian national anthem) enhance the picture.
The cast, which includes a wonderful Kathy Burke as Connie Sachs, the Circus’ sole female member, is stellar throughout. Oldman, like Guinness, has the depth necessary to make his understated portrait of an enigmatic character compelling.
Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytem’s shots of the mole suspects looking like a sinister sect in their soundproof rooms are creepy gems.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Three and a half stars
Starring Gary Oldman, Toby Jones, John Hurt, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Kathy Burke
Written by Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Running time 2 hours 8 minutes