It’s hard to imagine a film with more to live up to than “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” The brilliant John le Carre novel was superbly adapted to the small screen in 1979 in a BBC version that starred Alec Guinness as George Smiley, intelligence mandarin, cold warrior, scholar, cuckold and, famously, “the very archetype of a flabby Western liberal.”
The story is essentially the same. A covert operation set into motion by Control, the head of MI6, goes awry, and a British agent is shot and possibly killed. Control (played by John Hurt), who was past his prime and clinging to his office, was pursuing the theory that there was a double agent — a mole — leaking secret intelligence and sabotaging operations. Control and his deputy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) are forced out, and a cabal of younger men — who guard the service’s most closely held secret — take control. When presumed defector Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) comes in from the cold and makes contact with a Cabinet undersecretary, Smiley is called out of retirement to pick up the scent where the now-deceased Control left off.
Just to get it out of the way, the current film is not a worthy heir to its progenitors. Mr. Alfredson, a Swedish director, has given us a film that has the contours of a spy movie, but lacking any core or sense of what’s at stake.
Mr. Alfredson plunges the viewer into the world of MI6, known as “the Circus,” so those new to Mr. le Carre’s milieu may find themselves too busy trying to make sense of the jargon to notice that the plot is spinning out of control. The story unfolds kaleidoscopically, making it impossible to follow — or anticipate — the trail of evidence that guides Smiley. This is not the inevitable result of condensing a densely plotted 370-page novel (or a six-hour miniseries) into a two-hour movie. In fact, the screenwriters make some elegant elisions and excisions to constrain the plot.
Perhaps to its credit, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” doesn’t attempt to follow the path of the faithful adaptation. Where the book plumbs Smiley’s often ambivalent thoughts about secret work, the new film tries to capture the claustrophobia and ennui of this late Cold War period with a visual language. There are lots of cluttered, industrial spaces, institutional paint jobs, sputtering Citroens and ill-fitting three-piece suits. But the images of uncool Britannia are done in by the poor tradecraft they represent. There are too many big, open windows to be peered through — something real spies would not countenance. There are too few indications of how Smiley is piecing together his case.
Worse, there is precious little characterization of the men who could be the mole. In Mr. le Carre’s novel, they are sharply drawn, each with their own sets of loyalties and potential motives for treason. In the new film, they’re cheap window dressing — detailed with neckties, bad accents and sneaky expressions. They’re all played by accomplished actors, but none is really worth mentioning.
And how does Gary Oldman’s Smiley measure up? Surprisingly, Mr. Oldman’s version is closer to the character portrayed in the book — at least as the other characters would have experienced him. In the BBC miniseries, Smiley is used as an expository tool, to deliver opinions, back stories and other essential details, with the result that he comes off as a bit chatty. Mr. Oldman restores that sense of exterior implacability and menace that make Smiley so formidable. However, Mr. Oldman can do only so much to carry what should be an ensemble piece.
★ ★ ½ (out of four)
RATING: R for language, sexual situations and flashes of nudity
RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes