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‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy': Whack-a-mole

Never underestimate the value of an employee who has been recently sacked: Smiley (Gary Oldman, right) questions former MI6 duty officer Jerry Westerby (Stephen Graham), while Smiley’s younger associate, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) watches the master at work. The issue at hand: Did a field operative actually send a message during a crucial operation, or was that a lie? Courtesy photo

(L to R) Stephen Graham as "Jerry Westerby," Benedict Cumberbatch as "Peter Guillam" and Gary Oldman as "George Smiley" in Focus Features release of Tomas Alfredson's TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY. Credit: Jack English

By
From page A11 | January 06, 2012 |

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

3.5 stars

Starring: Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds

Rating: R, and too harshly, for brief violence, occasional profanity and eyeblink nudity

If your theater of choice offers the faux “classified dossier” of notes, characters and background information on this film, I strongly suggest you grab a copy.

You’ll need it.

Although scripters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan have done an impressive job of condensing John Le Carré’s massive, genre-breaking spy novel, the drawback is a sense of having been dropped smack into the middle of an extremely complicated story.

O’Connor, Straughan and director Tomas Alfredson simply assume that we’ll be able to pick up what we need to know, concerning roughly a dozen characters, as the film progresses. This already difficult task is further complicated by lots of jargon and a raft of flashbacks, often arriving without warning; we’re also expected to understand British Cold War politics and immediately grasp the internecine squabbling that infects the upper-echelon members of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, known here as “the Circus.”

Mind you, I eat this stuff up, and O’Connor and Straughan work hard to make things clear in context. But much as I enjoyed the Machiavellian maneuvering among the characters played by this sublimely talented cast, this is a film that only die-hard Anglophiles could love … and even they would be well advised to have read Le Carré’s book first.

More than anything else, Alfredson captures the grim atmosphere of despair that permeates Le Carré’s novel: the bleak misery of a working environment where trust is a fickle commodity at best, and loyalty often is for sale to the highest bidder. The people at the Circus can’t have normal relationships; by definition, they always worry about motivation and deception.

We’re uneasy at all times, worried that our central character — veteran agent George Smiley, played with thoughtful precision by Gary Oldman — will make a fatal mistake while pursuing the clandestine assignment with which he has been charged.

And “fatal” covers a lot of territory, as well. In this world, disgrace and dishonor are far worse than mere death.

In a nutshell, then: The crusty, ill-tempered head of the Circus, known only as Control (John Hurt), believes that the highest level of British Intelligence has long been compromised by a Soviet double agent. In an effort to learn this mole’s identity, Control sends field agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary. The mission goes spectacularly awry; Prideaux is exposed, and the blow-back forces Control out of the service … along with his top lieutenant, Smiley.

At least two of Control’s second-tier officers are delighted. The ambitious Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) has made no secret of his contempt for “the old ways”; he also has been running a covert operation, dubbed Witchcraft, which has drawn favorable notice from Britain’s minister of defense. Alleline therefore slides easily into the director’s chair vacated by Control.

The toadying Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), seeing career opportunities if allied with Alleline, is equally pleased, but the remaining two upper-level officers are harder to read. Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), a veteran of many years in the Eastern Bloc, seems genuinely sorry to see Control and Smiley go … but Bland keeps close counsel. Finally, the amiable, well-respected Bill Hardon (Colin Firth) tolerates Alleline but does not share his new supervisor’s puppy-dog desire to work with the Americans.

Perhaps more seriously, the minister’s second — Permanent Undersecretary Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) — soon begins to doubt the accepted belief that Control’s pursuit of a well-placed mole was a paranoid fantasy. Lacon therefore hires Smiley, off-book, to investigate the Circus; Smiley accepts the assignment and requests the assistance of Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), head of the “scalphunters” — like Prideaux — who do the agency’s “darker” work.

Smiley soon suspects that the Soviet section chief probably running the mole is Karla, a shadowy Russian spy master that our hero remembers from a long-ago encounter.

OK, not too hard to follow: Smiley needs to determine which of his former colleagues is a traitor. But the devil’s in the details, and this film takes a lot for granted.

Why does Smiley trust the younger Guillam? More to the point, why is Guillam willing to conduct unauthorized searches of Circus files, on Smiley’s behalf, when he could lose his job? Why are Smiley and Guillam able to find so much crucial information in Control’s apartment? Wouldn’t a spymaster of Karla’s savvy have sent people to destroy such stuff?

Other Circus employees, forced out of their positions during the purge that expelled Control, have equally valuable information, even if they’re not quite sure what that information is; it seems blindingly obvious that Smiley eventually will come calling.

The labyrinthine events of Le Carré’s novel have been compressed so much that we’re left only with the crucial bits of the puzzle, making Smiley’s investigation seem less a difficult, dusty treasure hunt, and more a fairly obvious gathering of clues that may as well have neon signs pointing to them.

In fairness, though, the film gets its juice from the many character interactions. Jones makes Alleline a marvelously loathsome little toad, and his nasty behavior toward Smiley is accepted quietly by the latter, with Oldman responding solely with the barest hint of … well, of a smile. It promises payback; we can’t wait for it.

Dencik, similarly, turns Esterhase into a slimy weasel: probably too obvious a choice as the traitor, but … well … one can’t be sure. Firth, at the opposite end of the spectrum, is all kicks and grins as the womanizing Haydon.

The Smiley/Guillam relationship becomes the most important, though, which is a shrewd decision on Alfredson’s part; the personable and rapidly rising Cumberbatch —recognized as BBC-TV’s recently re-booted Sherlock Holmes — is an engaging focus for our sympathies. Guillam’s stealthy invasion of Circus back files is a nicely tense sequence: one of the few times Alfredson eschews the mostly “talking heads” approach to this film.

I worried, upon learning of this film’s pending arrival, that it would be only a pale shadow of the rich, enormously satisfying five-hour 1979 miniseries that starred Alec Guinness as Smiley. The good news is that Oldman deftly steps into Guinness’ shoes, and makes the role his own; Oldman gives Smiley a bit more fire in his eyes, and he has a stronger physical presence to back up the character’s commanding intelligence.

Unfortunately, engrossing as this shorter “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is at times, it’s also ponderous and slow, and will be regarded as deadly dull by many viewers. (Indeed, more than a dozen folks bailed during the screening I attended.)

While I’ve long objected to lazy directors and scripters who insist on spoon-feeding plot details to audiences perceived as being stupid, Alfredson, O’Connor and Straughan could have tried a little harder to make this film more approachable.

— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com

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