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In the early 1970s during the Cold War, the head of British Intelligence, Control, resigns after an operation in Budapest, Hungary goes badly wrong. It transpires that Control believed one of four senior figures in the service was in fact a Russian agent - a mole - and the Hungary operation was an attempt to identify which of them it was. Smiley had been forced into retirement by the departure of Control, but is asked by a senior government figure to investigate a story told to him by a rogue agent, Ricky Tarr, that there was a mole. Smiley considers that the failure of the Hungary operation and the continuing success of Operation Witchcraft (an apparent source of significant Soviet intelligence) confirms this, and takes up the task of finding him. Written by
The classic Cold War spy thriller turned into a ravishing looking thinking man's thriller
I have not read the book nor seen the 1979 landmark series that garnered so much acclaim for the BBC and Sir Alec Guinness, but such contextualisation is not needed to recognise that this version of 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' is a masterful re-telling of John le Carré's seminal work about British espionage during the Cold War. An early scene really encapsulates the whole tone and mood of the film. A retired George Smiley (played majestically by Gary Oldman) is sitting at home and enjoying a documentary about Winston Churchill (which seems suitably apt for a man of his former position) when his doorbell suddenly and unexpectedly rings. His head turns slowly to the left in the direction of the impudent sound and the instantaneous look of sheer effrontery and disdain on Oldman's face will leave you chuckling as his peaceful reverie is rudely disturbed. Such scenes like this leaven the film with humour but ultimately this is a chamber piece; expertly played by the cream of British acting talent headed by Goldman and Hurt (who incidentally could also have been a great George Smiley) and told with a languid verve that unravels the complex plotting in a series of tableaux vivants laden with mystery and suspense, but which also acts as important plot points and clues.
The film is about the hunt for a Soviet 'mole' in the highest echelons of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6 but fictitiously known as 'The Circus') by George Smiley, an intelligence officer who has been brought out of forced retirement by Oliver Lacon, the Civil Service overseer of the Circus. Through a love affair with the wife of a Russian intelligence officer, a British agent, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) discovers that there may be a high ranking Soviet mole within the Circus. Aided by Peter Guillam (Bendedict Cumberbatch) who is Tarr's handler, Smiley sets about uncovering the mole without the knowledge of Circus leadership, anyone of whom might be the mole, headed by Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) and his deputies Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) the 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' of the book (codenames assigned by Control, Head of British Secret Service).
The director, Tomas Alfredson, established his reputation with 'Let the Right One In', an icy Swedish romantic horror that dealt with relationships and this too, is a film about human nature, moral dilemmas and relationships friendship, loyalty and betrayal on intimate and grand scales with personal and national implications. Like 'Let the Right One In' Alfredson imbues 'Tinker, Tailor', Soldier, Spy' (his first English language feature) with somnambulistic pacing and mood that requires the audience to be patient, but this is richly rewarded with scenes, shot after shot, that ravish the eye and heavy with period atmosphere and drama. James Bond this is not and George Smiley has more in common with Harry Palmer than Ian Fleming's vigorous secret agent. Indeed, Robert De Niro's admirable treatment of the early history of the Criminal Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 'The Good Shepherd' (2006) has a similar cipher in Edward Wilson a 'grey man' whose very ordinariness renders him invisible to counter espionage and thus makes him the perfect intelligence operative. A raised voice towards the end of 'Tinker, Tailor' is as excited as Smiley gets but for those not familiar with the story the ending will leave you with a broad smile of satisfaction as the 'grey man' (note Smiley's grey hair, grey countenance and grey suit replete with over-sized glasses and shambling gait) of the secret intelligence service wins the day.
The screenwriters, Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O'Connor, have done an exceptional job in condensing down what is clearly a labyrinthine Cold War thriller into a classic two hour potboiler without losing any of its exposition, characters, and plotting. John le Carré and his fans will be proud. This is a thinking man's film about a period of recent history that is as murky as it is exciting and relevant today with its eternal themes of friendship, loyalty and national security. There must be many more stories of espionage to mine from both sides of the Iron Curtain and I do hope this film kick starts a renewed interest in telling the stories of the Cold War warriors who shaped the modern world. If the film does 'King's Speech' levels of business I think it just might and Hollywood would be the richer for it.
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