Unmasking the World of British Espionage
Issue   |   Wed, 02/15/2012 - 02:54
Image courtesy of film.com
Best Actor Oscars nominee Gary Oldman heads a great cast in an engaging movie that de-mystifies espionage into an uneasy, dirty world.

“Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor —
Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief.”

There is something sinister beneath the superficial innocence of this traditional British counting rhyme. Or perhaps the very fact that I think so speaks to the influence of author John le Carré and his classic 1974 spy thriller, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.”

After serving himself as an operative for MI5, Britain’s intelligence-gathering equivalent of the CIA, le Carré (his real, far more English name, is David John Moore Cornwell) sought to demystify the secret world of espionage, stripping away the glamorous, candy-coated picture painted by Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Le Carré’s protagonists trade casinos for dingy offices and back alleys and swap in their tuxedos for tweed. Beneath the meaningless ideology and glossy public rhetoric of the politicians, the Cold War, as portrayed by le Carré in novels like “Tinker, Tailor,” “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” and “A Perfect Spy,” was really a gritty, amoral, cloak-and-dagger affair.

It’s funny that I ended up seeing “Tinker, Tailor” and the new “Mission: Impossible IV” at about the same time: the two films stand at opposite ends of a spectrum of attraction. The Tom Cruise franchise has always charmed by being completely absurd, a shiny, entertaining bauble delivered in flashy style. The new adaptation of “Tinker, Tailor” (the book was previously adapted into an acclaimed five-hour mini-series starring Alec Guinness in the late 70s) by Swedish director Tomas Alfredson is a perfect antidote, appealing to its viewers via an atmosphere of treachery, unease and grime. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema seems to have literally rubbed the camera lens with dirt before shooting; it takes special effort to make a smorgasbord of dazzling European metropolises like London, Istanbul, Budapest and Paris look uniformly ugly. It’s rather doubtful that the 70s really looked like this, but it probably felt like this, at least for the paranoid members of British intelligence.

Le Carré’s novels are a maze of interweaving characters and complex backstory, so compressing one of his works into a two-hour thriller is no small task. Do not watch “Tinker, Tailor” if you are expecting a mindless pursuit — this is a film where time and circumstance demand that information be implied rather than spelt out (remember, “loose lips sink ships”), and the narrative will not sit and wait while you figure it out. Obviously it’s absurd and unnecessary to ask that every viewer have already read the book, but it might be helpful to go into the film armed with at least a few facts.

At the slippery, obscure center of the film is George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a high-ranking intelligence officer and the right-hand man of Control (John Hurt), the head of the Secret Intelligence Service (also known as MI6, or, as its members refer to it with equal parts affection and disgust, “the Circus”). When agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) is shot in the back while trying to turn a Hungarian general in Budapest, both Control and Smiley are unceremoniously ousted from the Circus. A new cohort led by Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) is put in charge. Control dies soon afterwards. However, allegations arise from another agent, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), that there is a long-term Russian mole now in a position of power at the Circus. The Civil Servant in charge of intelligence, Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), coaxes Smiley out of retirement in order to investigate the claim. As Smiley and his assistant Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) quietly pursue the mole, it becomes clear that Control himself had suspicions regarding a double agent, and the botched mission in Hungary may have been more complicated than it appeared.

Like le Carré, Alfredson uses extensive flashbacks to reveal critical new information, leaving the viewer with the unsettling feeling of being out of the loop; when one of the characters declares late in the film that “things are not always as they seem,” the statement is rather redundant. These men have friendships and rivalries stretching back decades, and not even Smiley, the sharpest, most vigilant observer of them all, is immune from their obscuring influence. The grim reality of espionage is that events are never as neat and tidy as we would like them to be; in such an environment of mistrust, fear and obsession, everything becomes cloudy. It’s telling that there are two major figures in Smiley’s life that the audience is never allowed to see full-on: his professional counterpart, the Soviet spy-master Karla, and his enigmatic wife, Anne.

The vast British ensemble cast is uniformly top-notch, but special praise really must be paid to Gary Oldman, whose entire career seems to have been leading up to George Smiley. A veritable chameleon, Oldman has always blended into large ensemble films like “JFK” or the “Harry Potter” and “Dark Knight” franchises. It is fitting that Oldman should finally get to lead such a large cast, but besides that, the role of Smiley is appropriate for the very reason that the spy is unassuming, ordinary, invisible. Alleline and the other members of the Circus don’t take Smiley seriously for the very reason that he is slow-moving and subdued (almost to the point of catatonia). He can be easily ignored, just as the Oscars ignored Oldman for 25 years before finally giving him a Best Actor nomination this year. Watching “Tinker, Tailor,” I seriously think the actor drew inspiration by watching lizards: like some cold-blooded beast, Smiley at first moves only with great deliberation (and that includes blinking), but out in his element — that is, the cutthroat world of secret intelligence — he slowly builds up momentum until he is a force to be reckoned with.

Many viewers will be frustrated by the ambiguities of the narrative, and it’s true that much of le Carré’s background information has been sacrificed to keep the film’s pace moving at a regular clip. But this is a film that revels in design and tone. Despite dealing with several hundred pages’ worth of plot in barely over two hours, Alfredson (previously director of the moody vampire thriller “Let the Right One In”) manages to keep “Tinker, Tailor” ponderous and plodding, letting the audience soak up the queasy colors and stale air of a bygone era. It’s genre cinema that is anything but generic.