Indie Snapshot: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

by Ethan Alter December 9, 2011 3:50 pm
Indie Snapshot: <i>Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy</i>

Originally published in 1974, John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is generally regarded as one of the author's finest books, as well as one of the most gripping and accurate depictions of the spy game ever committed to paper. It certainly serves as a striking contrast to the globe-trotting heroics of secret agents like James Bond and Jason Bourne. Le Carré's protagonist, veteran MI6 spook George Smiley, may not peel around corners in Aston Martins, challenge international criminals to heated games of baccarat or bed every woman in sight, but in his own quiet, methodical way, he always gets the job done.

In Tinker, Tailor..., his specific job is ferreting out a Soviet mole who is believed to have taken up residence inside the upper echelon of his former place of employment, the British Secret Intelligence Service, or -- as it's known in-house -- The Circus. It's not exactly a happy homecoming. Following a botched operation that blew the cover of a key operative, Smiley (Gary Oldman) and his boss/mentor Control (John Hurt) were forced out of the organization on bad terms. The Circus betrayed him in a more personal way as well; his wife Ann has rather openly carried on affairs with several of his co-workers -- including dapper Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), one of the five men suspected of being the double agent -- and, as the movie opens, she's left him yet again. In classic stiff-upper-life British fashion, Smiley tamps down on whatever feelings are bubbling under his placid surface and allows himself to be drafted back into service. His investigation wins him such allies as Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), a rookie agent whose activities in the field were compromised by the traitor in their midst, and pits him against former colleagues-turned-potential-adversaries like Haydon, Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) and Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds).

Tinker, Tailor... was previously adapted for the screen as a deservedly acclaimed BBC miniseries starring Alec Gunniess as Smiley. This new version -- which streamlines the book into a two-hour feature -- has been crafted by Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, who gained international acclaim with his unique young-vampire-in-love story, Let the Right One In. Like that film, Tinker, Tailor... is impeccably produced; the early '70s period details are recreated faithfully right down to the last tweed jacket and Alfredson frames every shot with intense precision. As adapted by screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan, the narrative itself unfolds in a well-crafted web of flashbacks and stories-within-stories that's demanding, but not impenetrable. Fans of le Carré's specific brand of spy fiction will undoubtedly be quite pleased with the formal rigor and care that the filmmakers have applied to this translation.

Personally though, I have to confess to finding the whole thing tedious and flat -- a film that's so judiciously composed and art-directed, it can barely breathe. Let the Right One In occasionally suffered from some of the same heavy-handed, claustrophobic direction (which is one of the reasons I actually prefer the sadly underseen American remake, Let Me In), but the relationship between the young boy and his bloodsucking love interest kept me engaged throughout. Smiley, by design, has no close personal ties to the people in his life -- all of his relationships are on some level built on mistrust. Oldman's almost absurdly restrained performance certainly fits the character le Carré described and the murderer's row of English character actors who make up the rest of the cast don't set an obvious foot wrong either. But again, that curious sense lifelessness that permeates the entire film eventually seeps into their performances as well. The only performer who ever lashes out, or indeed, even raises his voice, is Hardy, who -- silly wig aside -- still has that magnetic presence that served him so well in Warrior and Inception. There's obviously an audience out there who will appreciate what Alfredson accomplished with this movie. I just don't happen to be among them.

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