“There’s a mole, right at the top of the Circus. And he’s been there for years.”
That’s a quote from the recently released, but with a limited distribution, film entitled Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The film, directed by Tomas Alfredson is taken from the 1974 novel by John LeCarre, went into a wide distribution today. As expected, I caught the early show at 10:00 AM after patiently waiting to see it here in Florida since it opened in the USA on December 9th.
For those of you who are more familiar with the cloak and dagger spy and undercover machinations of James Bond, or Ethan Hunt from Mission Impossible, or even Jason Bourne – this film has no fast cars, black tie dinners, games of chance like poker, contract bridge, or baccarat, and no one is killed by hand. There are no high speed chases, and no explosions either. We don’t see either a cell phone, a computer, or even an automatic weapon. The highest tech instrument we see is a telex machine. So to illuminate this otherwise dark film – a mole is a double agent, and the Circus is the home office of the British Intelligence Service also known as MI6.
The head guy is called Control (played by John Hurt) and he suspects that within the circle of the five highest ranking officials that assist him – one of them is the mole. Control sets up a mission to Hungary to debrief a former Hungarian Army general who supposedly might defect to the west, and he has intel about the identity of the mole. An agent (Mark Strong) is sent to Budapest – but the mission goes awry – meaning blown covers and there will be blood spilled.
Control (just look at the marvelous lines and sag to his face) has to get to the bottom of this mess, so he calls in George Smiley from ‘retirement’. Smiley’s role is played by Gary Oldman …
… in what has to be one of the stillest, sexless, and most controlled performance ever by a lead. He wears a trench-coat, a three piece suit, and horn-rimmed glasses throughout. About the only exercise he gets is an early morning swim in the river, and he even wears his glasses while swimming.
He is a cerebral character, in a cerebral film, adapted from a cerebral book. All you action junkies won’t be happy with this one. Decidedly this is a film that not only makes you think, but seems to celebrate its very depiction of the spy business as dull, dreary, and boring. All of the ‘suspects’ – the Tinker, the Tailor, the Soldier, the Poorman, and the Beggarman (yes, Smiley is a suspect too) seemed like colorless, dull men. The film’s palette is heavy on browns and grays as well.
As I said, this film requires a lot of work. The crowd was sparse (about 30 people attended this show) and of those, two walked out early on, and one fellow one row back and 8 seats to my left, fell into a snoring sleep at least twice. Okay, watching a film that makes you think is actually a good thing. While LeCarre’s novel ran for more than 600 pages, there is no sense that this film was dumbed-down. Condensed? Yes, certainly – so you are going to need to pay attention.
There’s a bit of confusion as to where we are as the film often crosscuts and doubles back on itself with the flashbacks. There are ample clues given – but you’ll need to not miss any of them. My reality is that I had an idea of the identity of the SPY – but it came from the trailer rather than the film as it played out. This is likely to result in what we call a payoff that is more like, Oh, so it was … and you’ll neither gasp in surprise, nor applaud inwardly about how well they fooled you. You’re most likely to just continue breathing at the exact same pace as before it was revealed.
While the film lacked color, and noise, and action, it more than made up for with an intelligent script and a few sharp and memorable quotes:
At a party, Control displays a strong dislike for the party punch. As we see him, he is pouring vodka directly into the punch-bowl. He says, to no one in particular, “It’ll take us five hours to get drunk on this monkey piss!”
The Soldier, Roy Bland, is played by Ciarin Hinds. He says a mouthful when he says: “For twenty-five years we’ve been the only thing standing between Moscow and the Third World War!”
Finally we have a tense encounter between Smiley and Easterhase:
George Smiley: I want to talk about loyalty, Toby. Control recruited you, didn’t he? He found you starving in a museum in Vienna, a wanted man. He saved your life, I heard. And yet, when the time came… when it came to picking sides between him and Allenine, you didn’t hesitate. It’s understandable, perhaps, with your war experience. You survived this long, I suppose, because of your ability to change sides, to serve any master.
Easterhase: What’s… what’s this about, George?
George Smiley: It’s about which master you’ve been serving, Toby.
I think the film is well crafted, intelligent, yet quite dull. Clearly, the words tense, ticking clock, or taut do not apply. If you listen you will remember more than a few well written lines of dialogue. But you really have to fill in the lines as while the characters do say meaningful things, they give away nothing visually. The drama as constructed isn’t really suspenseful at all – we never feel that a character is in peril. Nor do our hearts race. Even after we learn the identity of the mole, Smiley and the mole sit and discuss things in a reserved and passionless way.
Three point five zero is the rating on a scale of one to five. The film isn’t so lifeless that I’d call it inert. But if you are going to make it thoughtful and intelligent, then I think you have to make us care about the characters. But we don’t. and that’s because the story isn’t easy to follow. It is a film set in the days of the Cold War, so don’t be the least bit surprised that the film itself is cold and cheerless.