By Dennis Sherrard
"There is a mole right at the top of the Circus. He's been there for years." A mole is a code word for a spy embedded in the other side's team. He or she is a double agent, passing information to the other side, while working in the inner circle of his own organization In this case, that organization is the British Secret Service, also known as MI-6 and colloquially as "The Circus". The time is the early 1970's, at the middle of the tension between the Soviet Union and the West known as "The Cold War". Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is a movie based on John LeCarre's book of the same name. The move introduces us to the inner workings of the British Secret Service and shows in great detail the level of secrecy, suspicion and paranoia that is alive and well within the organization. One of the opening scenes, we see someone putting files in a "dumbwaiter", that are then elevated several floors to what looks like a file library where another analyst takes them out and files them or puts them in a safe. The visual of the building where the spies work from is one of ascending levels of secrecy with the lower levels being the employees and resources with the least influence and power. The 5th floor, where "Control", the head of the Service resides is chopped up with fully enclosed cubicles that are sound proofed. This is where Control and his aides meet.
This movie is about the search for a traitor inside the Service. It is a master work of subtlety and quiet paranoia where everyone is a potential traitor and suspected of being the mole by Control, played by the brilliant character actor, John Hurt.
Control believes the mole is one of 5 people, including his 2nd in command, George Smiley, masterfully portrayed by Gary Oldman, along with Percy Alleline, played by Toby Jones, Roy Bland, played by Ciaran Hinds, Toby Esterhase, played by David Dencik, and Bill Haydon played by Colin Firth. To find the mole, Control secretly sends Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), a field agent to Budapest to retrieve information. The mission goes wrong, and Prideaux, is presumably fatally shot and the identity of the mole is safe, at least for now. As a result of the failure, and the ensuing press about a British agent being shot in Hungary, Control is fired along with George Smiley. Control dies soon after his dismissal, and Smiley is going through the motions of being a retired civil servant. He exercises, goes on errands, gets his eyes checked and all the while maintains a level of suspicion about everything. He even wedges a small piece of wood in the door frame of his house which if opened would fall to the ground and Smiley would know that his house has been entered.
Percy Alleline becomes the head of the Circus and has launched an operation known as Witchcraft, by which a Soviet agent is passing information along to the Circus that Alleline, Bland and others believe will get them back in the good graces of the American CIA. As we learn later in the film, the Witchcraft operation isn't exactly what it seems.
Another field agent named Ricki Tarr, discovers a secret through his affair with the wife of a Russian trade representative that she will tell the British Secret Service the identity of the Mole in exchange for being taken to Britain and given a new life. Tarr phones the information to headquarters and the woman is suddenly captured and whisked away, presumably back to Russia. The mole had discovered the information Tarr was attempting to pass on and told the Russians who in turn captured the defecting woman. Tarr phones Oliver Lacon, the Cabinet Undersecretary and Civil Servant in charge of the Circus, because he is now suspicious of some one at the top of the Service and cannot report in to them for fear of inadvertently telling the mole.
Lacon goes to Smiley with the information and requests that he come back and look into the matter without Alleline and his minions knowing what is going. The movie is now 18 minutes old, and the star, Gary Oldman, says his first line of film. "I'm retired. You fired me Oliver". Reluctantly Oldman agrees to look into the matter but requires the assistance of a retired Special Branch officer, "Mendel", and another of the lower level members of the Circus, Peter Guillam, played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
Shortly after Lacon talks to Smiley about investigating the matter, Tarr shows up at Smiley's house and gives him a greater level of information about the story.
As they set up shop in an old hotel, Smiley, Guillam and Mendel start a process of infiltrating the Circus, removing records, and slowly piecing together the time-table of events and closing in on who might be the mole. What they begin to discover is an operation run by Smiley's old nemesis, Karla. Karla is the code name given to the head of Moscow Central, essentially Control's mirror image in the Soviet Intelligence world and someone Smiley had come across years before. In the clip below, Smiley and Guillam are having drinks and Smiley reflects on his meeting with Karla in an attempt to woo him over to the West. Oldman's portrayal of Smiley's meeting with the Russian master spy is an astounding scene. Look at the clip and watch Oldman's face. His description of the meeting to Guillam is one of the best scenes in the movie. Watch the clip and see the age, weariness and failure in Oldman's face.
Alfredson's direction, the set design, the lighting all convey a world of espionage that you do not see in a James Bond film or a Jason Bourne film. There are no wild car chases or explosions at play in this movie. It is as much about the character's expression as it is about the plot, perhaps more so. There is no "Q Branch" with car submarines or any such gadgetry that Bond invariably uses in his efforts. In fact, this portrayal of spymasters looks at Bond as lower level soldiers such as Ricki Tarr. In other words, they are the tools used by Smiley and the important players in this game to be manipulated, discarded, betrayed or supported depending upon the wishes of the masters. The soundtrack in this movie by Alberto Iglesious is quiet and melancholy, and fits exactly the world within which Smiley operates. There are a few moments of violence, such as when Jim Prideaux is shot in Hungary, but for the most part this is a movie about two chess grand masters playing with pieces that span the globe, political philosophy and levels of power in governments at a time in the world when two great powers (The US and the USSR) were vying for geo-political dominance. Great Britain's role in this play is a supporting one, and Alleline's efforts to get back to the big table with the Soviets and the Americans in the intelligence game are a large part of the story here.
This film is not for everyone. If you are looking for breathtaking action sequences, they aren't here. If you are looking for beautiful women who succumb to the great spy's charms, well, there is one, but it is not central to the plot. This film centers around a group of people whose lives are full of lies, suspicions, incredible levels of mis-direction and subterfuge and at the end, all involved evoke a world weariness that exhibits what I think is probably more true about the espionage field than any other movie on the subject. Smiley is not handsome, he's old, he's rumpled, and he is grey. You'd not notice him walking down the street. That is the way the game is played, and Le Carre's novels and Alfredson's film give us an insight of a life that is at the same time dangerous and invisible.
I've seen the film now a couple of times and see something new in each viewing. I read Le Carre's novels (Le Carre by the way was a member of the British Secret Service who was 'outed', or had his cover blown, during the Kim Philby scandal back in early 1960's) and found them detailed and immensely entertaining. So, he brings a realism to his stories based on experience. I highly recommend this film for those who are lovers of the espionage genre. Also, if you can, rent the 1970's BBC version done in a mini-series format that started Sir Alec Guiness as the master spy George Smiley. It's seven hours of drama that goes into more detail on the story and well worth watching.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was directed by Tomas Alfredson; written by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, based on the novel by John le Carré; director of photography, Hoyte van Hoytema; edited by Dino Jonsater; music by Alberto Iglesias; production design by Maria Djurkovic; costumes by Jacqueline Durran; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Robyn Slovo; released by Focus Features. Running time: 2 hours 8 minutes.
WITH: Gary Oldman (George Smiley), Kathy Burke (Connie Sachs), Benedict Cumberbatch (Peter Guillam), David Dencik (Toby Esterhase), Colin Firth (Bill Haydon), Stephen Graham (Jerry Westerby), Tom Hardy (Ricki Tarr), Ciaran Hinds (Roy Bland), John Hurt (Control), Toby Jones (Percy Alleline), Svetlana Khodchenkova (Irina), Simon McBurney (Oliver Lacon), Katrina Vasilieva (Ann Smiley), William Haddock (Bill Roach), Mark Strong (Jim Prideaux) and John le Carré (Christmas party guest).