John LeCarré has been an acclaimed and prolific writer of espionage novels since the early 1960s, having published over 20 novels to date. The more surprising it is that despite the success of his literary work, only very few of his novels have been adapted to the big screen and even among those adaptations only few turned out to be memorable and noteworthy movies. Maybe the catch lies in the complexity and richness of LeCarré’s novels which make for a compelling read, but don’t easily translate to the big screen. The most recent and probably most acclaimed cinematic adaptation of LeCarré’s work (until Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), was Fernando Mereilles’ adaptation of The Constant Gardener. The movie scored five Academy Awards nominations (including one win for Rachel Weisz as Best Supporting Actress) and turned into a decent financial success. Ironically, The Constant Gardener is one of the few of LeCarré’s novels not dealing with the themes of espionage, but instead with the shady dealings of pharmaceutical conglomerates. Nevertheless, successful adaptations of LeCarré’s novels are few and far in between. With Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy the first LeCarré adaptation since The Constant Gardener in 2005 hit the silver screen and it might just be the best to date. There is a distinct parallel between The Constant Gardener and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – both have been directed by foreign directors, coming off a hugely acclaimed hit they made in their homeland. The native Brazilian Mereilles has previously directed City of God which was surprisingly nominated for four Academy Awards, whereas Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s Tomas Alfredson has made Let the Right One In. The Swedish vampire drama garnered rave reviews, many calling it the best genre film in years. Maybe there is something about the non-English language natives that makes it easier for them to look through the complexity of Le Carré’s prose and its tradecraft jargon and not be tied down by it in the adaptation.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is arguably one of LeCarré’s most acclaimed works. Published in 1974, at the height of the Cold War, the novel marks the fourth appearance of master spy George Smiley in LeCarré’s works. The intricate plot details Smiley’s quest to find a Soveit mole in the upper echelon of the Circus (as the British Secret Intelligence Service is nicknamed in the novel). It has previously been adapted in 1979 as a seven-part miniseries by the BBC with Alec Guinness taking over the part of Smiley. In Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation British veteran actor Gary Oldman took what could be the role of his colourful and impressive career.
The movie starts off with Control (John Hurt), the head of the Circus, sending off one of his agents (played by Mark Strong) to Budapest on a mission to find information about a suspected mole in the Circus. The operation is botched, Control’s man killed and Control and his most trusted spy, Smiley, disgracefully shafted from the SIS. The ambitious and mean-spirited Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) takes over Control’s position with Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) and Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) serving as his right hand men at the top of the Circus. The clue is that it’s these four men among whom Control have suspected the Soviet mole to be. Despite the botched mission in Hungary, Control’s allegations have been strong enough for the Civil Servant in charge of intelligence to secretly recruit Smiley out of retirement to investigate Control’s suspicions. What unravels after that is a detailed account of Smiley’s and his team’s investigation amidst distrust, fear and paranoia.
It’s particularly interesting that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was one of the two spy movies released last December with the other being the new instalment in the Mission: Impossible franchise. While both are very good movies in their own right, they couldn’t possibly be more different. The drab and gloomy world of espionage envisaged by LeCarré is miles away from the glossy Hollywood action spectacle that Mission: Impossible represents. Here the important actions and events are not wrapped into a terrifically executed action scene, but instead are just shown to be in the mechanisms of bureaucracy. The main protagonist is not a hunky guy with almost superhuman abilities, but an inconspicuous middle-aged man in a grey suit of a trenchcoat. There is no action-laden climax, no millions of lives at stake or exotic locations. While the movie’s action does venture to Budapest and Istanbul among others, most of the film takes place in rainy, grey and ill-lit London. While one of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’s most exciting scenes involves the hero climbing up the tallest skyscraper in the world, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s central suspenseful scenetakes place in the shockingly plain and boring looking Circus headquarters and involves Smiley’s right-hand man, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) stealing some papers for Smiley. Nevertheless, even though lacking a spectacular location and a $100+ million budget, the scene is equal in intensity and suspense as Cumberbatch’s Guillam never comes across nearly as self-assured in what he is doing as Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt.
Whereas Mission: Impossible is all about the action, the spectacle and the eye candy, Alfredson’s film is all about the mood and the characters which it both manages extremely well. It’s not unsimilar to Alfredson’s last film where the vampire plot played second fiddle to the child characters, their relationship and the icy atmosphere. Here Alfredson’s direction once again shows a great eye for the visual. Supported by a terrific crew behind the scenes he created a depressingly convincing Cold War London. The cinematography is superb, dimming the colors in all scenes and wonderfully capturing the smoke-infested meetings by the Circus top tiers. Maria Djuorkovic’s art direction perfectly recreates the era and it’s a real shame that the Academy decided to snub her for a deserved Oscar nomination. Perhaps the sets just weren’t flashy or luscious enough. At least Alberto Iglesias’ masterfully understated score managed to be nominated. Interestingly enough he has also scored the last LeCarré adaptation, The Constant Gardener, which earned him his first Oscar nomination. Overall the combination of great technical aspects and a talented director make the universe created in this film seem very believable, even though detached at the same time. A constant sense of distrust, dread and futility of actions permeates the film’s atmosphere in each scene. As Oldman’s Smiley puts it into words in one of the film’s most poignant moments: “There’s as little worth on your side as there is on mine”. The film deals with betrayal, as much on a larger level as on a personal one. Loyalties are tested in every way and friendships and relationships suffer.
The film still wouldn’t be as good as it is without its cast – one of the best British ensemble casts assembled on the big screen. Obviously most of the accolades go towards Gary Oldman who might have finally found the role of his lifetime. It deservingly earned him the first Oscar nomination of his career too. For an actor who has played quite a bunch of over-the-top characters during his career his performance as Smiley is a real change in pace. It’s an extremely calm, subtle and understated performance. He’s a true spy with his creased face never giving much away of what is going on inside of him. Yet, the tired look in his eyes, the way he moves and the measured pace at which he talks makes this for a very compelling performance and creates a fully realized character. Nevertheless, this is never Oldman’s one-man-show. He is supported by a brilliant cast. The notable standouts include Benedict Cumberbatch whose character shows the toll that this job takes on people and Tom Hardy as the hotshot scalphunter in one of the film’s more lively performances. Colin Firth delivers a slick performance which is quite unlike his graceful awards-winning turn in The King’s Speech whereas Toby Jones convincing slimy bureaucrat is a good antagonist from within to Smiley.
Indeed with all the attention to detail, the richness and the great acting the film still showcases the difficulties of adapting such a complex plot as a two-hour movie. It requires a lot of close attention from the viewer and even then there is still a feeling of some parts missing or being cut short for the sake of a shorter running time. The viewer’s understanding of all that is happening on screen is mostly taken for granted, allowing a very interesting glimpse into this world, but making it difficult to follow everything. Some great actors suffer under their characters just getting the short shaft in the adaptation, such as the usually great Ciarán Hinds which has barely any significant dialogue in the film. With the four suspects not really being fleshed out, the revelation at the end doesn’t feel like much of a surprise or a climax because it is just too difficult to get invested into these characters. This might very well have been Alfredson’s intention, though. He has created a film that is beautiful to look at and to study. It definitely warrants a second (and maybe a third viewing). It is, however, a movie in which (maybe due to the difficulties of adapting the source novel or due to the director’s intention) the solution of the actual mystery at hand is far less interesting than everything else surrounding it.