I’m a big fan of England, generally speaking. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy earns my love right off the bat for being so delightfully British. First off, you have this fantastic cast of British actors, all being very British. British spies nonetheless. Then there’s the fact that it’s set in the seventies, one of my favorite eras. The whole thing gets even better from there. I was worried that I was going to find this film impossible to follow, but having a slight knowledge of the story and making sure I paid close attention to what was going on avoided that. I did get confused at the end, but it’s nothing a trip to wikipedia couldn’t clear up.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is first and foremost about a mole hunt inside that British secret service. It’s set during the height of the Cold War, so a lot is at stake. One of the reasons this film can get confusing is their code names for everything. “The Circus” is MI6, and “Control” (John Hurt) is the guy in charge of it. At the film’s start, he sends one of the agents, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to pick up a guy who’s defecting in Budapest. Unfortunately, the whole thing goes south, causing quite an embarrassment for Control. To save face, they force out Control and George Smiley (Gary Oldman), among others. Control dies soon later, but Smiley is brought back in to investigate a mole in the Circus. He’s perfect for the job since he knows everybody but isn’t technically on the inside.
There are a number of possibilities, and they are each given a code name based on a nursery rhyme. “Tinker” is Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) who’s taken over in Control’s absence, “Tailor” is Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), his right hand man, “Soldier” is Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), who is evidence that I still don’t fully understand all of this because I can’t remember what his function is, “Beggarman” is Smiley, who is clearly not the mole but Control originally thought he could be, and “Poorman” is Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). The term “Spy” goes to whoever turns out to be the mole. Helping Smiley is Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is still in the Circus so he has access to information, and is in charge of Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy), a man with a lot of information.
Smiley has to go run a lot of people down and send in Guillam for a lot of top secret files and such. Guillam sneaking into the Circus were some of the most tense and suspenseful moments in the film. This is a very patient film; it takes its time letting you in on what’s going on. It’s hard to keep track of everything that goes on, so let’s start with Ricky Tarr. He was also supposed to get somebody to defect, but he realized this person was another spy so he started in on the wife instead. She knew about a mole in the circus, as was going to defect herself in return for this information. Before she could however, the Russians got her back and Tarr never heard from her again. There is someone who did however…. and that person later turns up and helps flesh out the whole story, though some of Smiley’s own experience is needed as well.
Smiley approaches this thing from all sides. It’s a challenging film to keep track of, as I’m just fully realizing now, but one thing the film does really well is give you the right feeling. Even if you don’t know how everything’s adding up and such, the film has a great spy feel to it. It really reminds me of All the President’s Men, because that had a lot of mundane investigating in it that was hard to keep track of too. What that film did is the same thing that this one succeeds in doing: keep you involved even when you’re confused. A lot of the time I suppose I thought I knew what was going on, but maybe I didn’t because I’m having a hard time recounting it, but at the time I was fully immersed and that’s what counts!
There is something that’s pretty easy, or relatively easy, to understand though, and that’s the toll all of this takes on their personal lives. Ricky Tarr tries to pretend he doesn’t care much about the women he failed to protect, but it’s clear he does. Smiley runs into some trouble about his ex-wife, and it’s doubly depressing to realize that she ended up cheating on him for no good reason. And I’m pretty sure Guillam has to forgo someone to stay in the game too. It’s not really dwelt upon too much, but understating it so much made it more emotional for me. I really felt bad for these guys!
I have tried to read the book, and I have to say, for me at least, the film was a lot easier to follow. At least you could keep track of the different actors even if you couldn’t keep track of the names. This cast was pretty familiar to me; there were only a couple people I’d never seen before. It’s about five million times harder to keep track of everyone in the book because they are all faceless characters. That said, I was able to remember some of the names and functions even though I started reading the book a couple years ago and never finished.
I especially delighted in John Hurt’s character. He wasn’t around too often, but he did show up a bit more in flashbacks. He was able to bring a little bit of humor to the party scenes which really helped the film in my opinion. I couldn’t help thinking that Alleline wanted Control gone because he told him he didn’t know how to make punch! Clearly not true, but I was having fun with this idea. Also I noticed that Control has one of those Union Jack bulldog statues on a shelf behind his desk; I remember one of those making an even more central appearance in Skyfall and it made me wonder how/if the two British spy films were connected.
I really enjoyed Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The cast was great and did not disappoint. I loved the spy feel throughout, which I think will save the movie for those who are confused. Apparently the original books are a trilogy, and Wikipedia has a tantalizing idea of adapting those as well at the bottom of their article. I don’t know how accurate that is, given that it’s two years now from when the film was released, but I hope that happens! I’d love a sequel to this fantastic film.
“Don’t you think it’s time to recognize that there’s as little worth on your side as there is on mine?”