Reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and several other George Smiley novels a couple of decades ago, I found John le Carre’s tales of the once and future SIS agent intriguing but not entirely accessible. Having read several Ian Fleming James Bond novels before, picking up le Carre was something of a shock. It is unquestionable that the fate of the world is at stake in le Carre’s novels, just as it is in the Bond ones, but rather than there being a super-villain whose plots are over the top and who is beaten by Bond’s strength, with, and luck; the threats in Smiley’s world are more realistic and beaten by the SIS agent slowly and carefully teasing at a thread until the entire plot comes undone.
The 2011 Tomas Alfredson directed adaptation of Tinker, Tailor perfectly captures everything that makes le Carre’s work great. It is not the tale of a hollowed out volcano being used to fire a rocket ship into space (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but rather of individuals in and around the trenches of the carefully scripted spy ballet between the British and the Soviets.
At the center of things is the stoic George Smiley (portrayed brilliantly by Gary Oldman, even if he doesn’t look the way le Carre describes Smiley). Smiley opens the film as the right-hand man of the head of the SIS, Control (John Hurt), but when a secret operation goes awry, Control is forced out and takes Smiley with him. Soon after, it comes to light that Control’s operation was executed in order to find a mole at the service and Smiley is brought in to finish the job.
The movie isn’t full of twists and turns in the way many a spy story is related, rather it is more akin to being inside a dark maze with Smiley, and slowly working through it with him until there is a clearly lit way out. That is to say, suspicion isn’t thrown on person A and then person B and then person C, Smiley and the script (from Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan) have no desire to repeatedly shout “J’accuse!” at people only to have suspicion soon land else. No, instead, everyone at the Circus has something they’re after (generally power) and it is Smiley’s job to, without ever accusing the wrong person, find out who has been handing secrets to the nefarious Moscow agent, “Karla.”
Those with little interest in slow burns would refer to the film and Smiley as “plodding,” but such an assessment misses the point entirely (and would have others decry the criticism as yet another sign of the end of Western Civilization and how our MTV culture has destroyed great drama). Control was clearly becoming paranoid—Smiley was one of his suspects—but the man was surrounded by snakes, even those who were fighting on his side. Control knew that one of the top men at the Circus—Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), or Smiley himself—was unquestionably responsible for selling secrets, but in a world filled with secrets, how does one uncover whom is selling to the Soviets, whom is selling for power within the government, and whom is just hoarding them to cash in when the time is right.
Not being quite as paranoid, Smiley has a select group who help him uncover the truth including Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), and Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke). It isn’t that Smiley trusts any or all of the folks helping him, but he does hold enough cards and has enough ways of confirming information, that he is slowly but surely able to piece together what has happened to the Circus and attempt to see justice done.
Over the course of slightly more than two hours, Alfredson manages to create something both incredibly intricate and terribly grand. We are given backstories for characters good and bad, we are let into the lives of agents and spies, and we see that being forthright and trustworthy won’t necessarily get you anywhere in the world of spydom. We find out why Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) was sent into the lion’s den and became of him.
The entire look of the film on Blu-ray enhances the film’s great sense of a specific moment. It isn’t simply that the costumes, hair, and surrounding are of the early ’70s, but the grain in the film is also reminiscent of films of that time. The amount of detail present, particularly in close-ups (specifically ones of Oldman) is outstanding despite the grain. Scenes in the dark do have a tendency to be somewhat overly dim, but are not distractingly so. Colors are, purposefully, washed out, so don’t expect eye-popping reds or greens, but it does feel as though the vision of the filmmakers has been perfectly presented herein. The audio is a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track and sounds excellent. While the visuals place us within a specific time period, the audio gives us our location, putting the viewer squarely within the middle of the action (or, sometimes, inaction). Everything is crisp, clear, and feels carefully calculated to help create the reality of the situation.
Where this release falls down are with its bonus features. The film does come with a DVD and a digital copy (Ultraviolet and iTunes), but there really is very little else. Deleted scenes as well as a commentary track with Alfredson and Oldman are present. There is also a “First Look” piece which gives some background on the film and plot, but doesn’t really focus on as much nitty gritty over the course of its 13 minute run as one would like. Also present are a series of EPK-type interviews with some of the cast and crew (including le Carre). The le Carre interview here is both the longest and the best, providing lots of information and being truly interesting. One feels, however, that for a film with this level of greatness a more all-encompassing set of featurettes would have been better.
In the end, however, what one has with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is one of the greatest spy novels of the 20th Century having been turned into an incredibly engrossing feature-length piece that reflects the novel and its story without being hamstrung by it. It is a brilliant movie and, even in a day and age laden with sequels, it makes one hope that The Honourable Schoolboy is on its way.