Film: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

As a diehard fan of the novel — indeed, it may be my favorite — I was extremely curious to see how John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy would adapt as a feature-length film. It struck me as an ambitious project, fraught with difficulty: a long, complex novel, beloved by many, that had already been successfully adapted as a six-episode BBC miniseries featuring Alec Guinness over thirty years ago. Guinness’ iconic performance as George Smiley is already considered definitive, perhaps even perfect, by many critics. How could a new production live up to all this baggage, all those expectations?

In the end, though, I think it does. It’s not a perfect retelling of le Carré’s moody, cerebral molehunt, but it is an earnest, compelling, and worthy one, bringing effectively to life one of the most famous spy novels of all time.

Gary Oldman steps bravely into Guinness’ shoes as Smiley, an unremarkable-seeming but brilliant veteran of the intelligence world, who’s lured out of a forced retirement by a crisis. Information has come to light that Russian intelligence has inserted a mole into the British spy service, and because it seems likely that the Russian source is highly placed, these suspicions can’t be revealed within the service itself. As an outsider, Smiley is enlisted by the British government to identify the mole, leading to a tense, suspenseful investigation as Smiley sorts through the puzzle pieces to determine which of the key suspects — service leaders Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), or Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) — has been secretly working with the Russians to undermine “the Circus.”

There are some areas where the new adaptation falls short. The early stages of the film are slow and murky, interesting but not entirely coherent. The part of me that went into the film with doubts wondered, at first, whether the script had honed in on the most important two hours’ worth of material. The pace picks up later, however, and the story resolves strongly. But in terms of sheer start-to-finish story-telling, I think the miniseries was more successful. The purist in me also took issue with some of the random-seeming tweaks of the original material: moving a sequence from the Czechoslovakian woods to the Hungarian street, for example, and certain character spins that didn’t resonate with my memory. (Particularly egregious: the conflation of Sam Collins and Jerry Westerby, two distinct figures, into one time-saving character. Seems to me they could, and perhaps should, have left out Westerby entirely.) In the scheme of things, these violations of the source material’s integrity are forgiveable and minor, though.

Because ultimately the new version does a lot of things right. If its story-telling isn’t as smooth and complete as the miniseries’, it is more briskly paced and visually stimulating. The production values are top notch, recreating the era, and the feel of the Smiley novels, perfectly. (I was particularly impressed with the film’s set design for the Circus.) The casting is masterful, bringing the characters faithfully and vividly to life. In some cases, the matches are reminiscent of the original portrayals: John Hurt as Control, Colin Firth as Bill Haydon, and Oldman as Smiley, conjuring memories of Guinness without really trying to outdo him. But other roles are enhanced: Benedict Cumberbatch as Smiley’s right-hand man Peter Guillam, Toby Jones as the current head of the Circus Percy Alleline, and Tom Hardy as the fugitive Riki Tarr, all more lively and engaging improvements. In at least one case — the character Jim Prideaux — the new interpretation (Mark Strong) isn’t necessarily an improvement over the old (Ian Bannen), but is excellent in a different way. All the performances are strong and memorable, combining with the production to stirringly evoke the feel of the novel, as well as the book’s critical examination of institutional and ideological corruption.

In the end, the new Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy struck me as a love letter to a classic, perhaps designed more to resonate with the converted than to bring in newcomers. It may pique the interest of the uninitiated, but I’d recommend it more highly to veterans of the Smiley novels, less so to rookies. While it won’t entirely supplant the Guinness version in my mind, I do see it sitting proudly on the shelf right next to it, a worthy adaptation in its own right.

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