Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

There is a highly placed Soviet mole in British intelligence during the height of the cold war.  George Smiley, played by Gary Oldman, is brought back from forced retirement to find out who it is.  That is the very simplified set up to Tomas Alfredson’s film version of John Le Carre’s novel, which was loosely based on the case of the Cambridge Five, a ring of moles that included the infamous Kim Philby.  It’s interesting to note that LeCarre’, who’s real name is David Cornwell was outed as an agent to the Soviets in 1964 by Philby, cutting short his intelligence career.

                LeCarre’s world is one of dark subtlety.  There are only shades of grey and if anyone still has any idealism left, he hides it carefully.  It is a world not far removed from the fight against Nazism when the USSR and the west were allies.  Some of the veterans of that fight had loyalties to the old allies that they never revealed nor forsook.  

                Every element of this film contributes to the theme of moral ambiguity.  The cinematography is dark and grainy, using a lot of natural lighting.  The performances are studies in subtlety, especially Gary Oldman’s.  These are upper and middle class Englishmen of the World War II generation,  who value restraint and civilized behavior even in the face of black treason.  And yet they are good enough actors to convey their deeply suppressed emotions on their carefully blank faces.  Standing out are Mark Strong as the put upon Jim Prideaux, and Colin Firth as Bill Haydon, the womanizing agent in a trusted position in the service.

                Even the script avoids outright conflict, preferring to dwell on the process of catching the mole, and the complicated set up of the scheme.  The climax, where the mole is arrested, is entirely off screen.  One minute, Smiley is at the safe house, fingering his revolver and waiting for the turned spy and the next minute, the mole is in jail waiting to be exchanged.  I actually found this to be a little disconcerting but I have to admire the nerve it took to do it.

                Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a little bloodless to be a complete triumph but it is still one of the year’s better movies.

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4 Responses to “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”


  1. 1 Mark Anderson January 13, 2012 at 4:52 am

    Other Ebert,

    The deemphasis of the arrest scene is interesting. In the Le Carre book it is the climactic moment; the events of the actual arrest are told from the point of view of a furious Peter Guillam almost hysterical with his sense of betrayal. At first I thought the screenwriters might have chosen to elide over the scene because it would be hard to show how that overpowering anger is rooted not only in the events shown in the movie but in personal factors which Le Carre explains in exposition and which aren’t practical to include in the movie. I noticed though, that the other visually dramatic scene in the book, the shooting of Jim Prideaux, is also played way, way down in the movie — in the movie, there is no fleeing car being blasted off the road and no heavy machine guns zeroing in on Prideaux — and those events would not have been difficult at all to film.

    Would you have been able to follow the movie if you were not already familiar with the novel? The movie didn’t seem to me to be a self-contained story at all but rather a set of very respectful illustrations for the novel (which pleased me, because I like the novel and know it well enough that the illustrations are enough for me). Many elements of the film drawn from the novel — for example the scenes with Prideaux teaching, and the whole character of Roy Bland, code-name “Soldier” — didn’t seem to advance the much more terse movie story at all, but are very effective evocations of page after page of the Le Carre novel. Perhaps the story is so well known to so many people from the 1974 novel and the 1979 BBC miniseries with Alec Guiness as Smiley that the filmmakers were counting on a critical mass of people like me who don’t need or even want to have the story spelled out to them.

  2. 2 theotherebert January 14, 2012 at 4:48 pm

    Umm…I hate to admit this but I actually never read the novel. I know that when I reviewed The Constant Gardener, I expressed an interest in reading more of LeCarre but I never got around to it. I listened to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold during a car trip up to Washington once. But that’s it.
    Happily though your thought experiment about me being able to follow the movie without having read the book is a thought experiment no longer! I followed the plot well enough, though I had to pay close attention, which is the case with these things anyway. I did feel like I missed some of the character nuances, your example of Roy Bland being right on the mark. I guess I’m also unclear as to why Peter Guillam would be upset at the time of the arrest. I know he was angry with Ricki Tarr when Percy Alleline had convinced him that there wasn’t a mole, but I thought Smiley had convinced him otherwise. Now I can see Rikki getting really angry if he ever learns that Smiley knew his Russian girlfriend was dead when he promised to do everything in his power to get her out of the Soviet Union. And I take it that Percy was not part of the conspiracy. When Smiley saw him at the gates of the prison he seemed distressed but at liberty.

  3. 3 Mark Anderson January 16, 2012 at 5:10 am

    Oh. I guess I saw so many trees in the film that I figured the forest would
    be invisible. I am glad I was wrong. It was foolish for me to speculate that the producers would create a film aimed at only Le Carre fanboys.

    There are suggestions in the film (and novel) that at some suppressed level people at the Circus suspect who the mole might be, but can’t bear to admit it to themselves. The absolute loyalty toward each other that they depend upon — the absolute duty to preserve their shared secrecy — is so sacred that that they won’t allow the thought that it has been violated. Peter Guillam’s outburst at Ricki Tarr, “You made me spy on my own people! How do you think that makes me feel?” seems slightly ridiculous except in the light of that duty. That is, stealing Circus files for Smiley’s investigation isn’t just risky; it is utterly immoral. And when Toby Esterhase goes to pieces under Smiley’s interrogation at the airstrip, his last defense is to plead that he really is loyal, repeating that word “loyal”.

    But people do unwillingly suspect the truth. Recall that in Smiley’s interview with Connie Sachs — the analyst forced out when she focuses too closely on the supposed cultural attache Polyakov — she ends with something like, “George, if you find out something nasty is going on at the Circus, I don’t want to know; I want to remember all of us the way we were when we were all fighting the good fight together.” Remember that in Smiley’s interview with the captured mole, we learn that Jim Prideaux went to the mole to “warn” him — that’s Smiley’s word for it, not Prideaux’s — before departing on his doomed Budapest mission to learn the mole’s identity. Curiously, Percy Alleline appears to have the moral courage to admit the possibility to himself and act upon it. You think it is odious that Alleline is having his own staff at the Circus bugged, until you notice who exactly it is that he is monitoring.

    So, turning to your question about the novel, the moment that Guillam
    learns the mole’s identity at the safe house is the moment that Guillam finally, belatedly has to admit the reality of the mole’s betrayal of ideals to which Guillam was completely loyal and to which, up to that moment, he believed the mole was also completely loyal. That sense of betrayal is what brings on the anger that makes this the climactic scene in the novel. Although, as you pointed out, the same scene is very muted in the film.

  4. 4 theotherebert January 16, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    Sorry Mark, but they’re just not going to make a film that only people who’ve read the book can follow. At least not on purpose. For what it’s worth LeCarre’ has said that this is the best film adaptation of his work that’s ever been produced. He liked the approach so much he participated in the production. He’s an extra at the Christmas party.

    Thanks for clearing up the Peter Guillam tangle. When I read your original reply I assumed you were saying that he was mad at Smiley. That would truly make no sense.


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