John le Carré is nicely placed halfway between serious novelist and genre practitioner; his spy stories are marvels of mood and character (and realistic enough that Britain’s real spooks insisted on reading his manuscripts prior to publication just in case art was doing too good a job of imitating life). Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, one of his best novels, became a TV mini-series in 1979 and is now an equally splendid film.
The protagonist is George Smiley (Gary Oldman), an espionage veteran at the very top rung of MI6. It’s the bleakest period of the Cold War and a small group within MI6 is afraid that their agency has been infiltrated by a double agent feeding intelligence to the Russians. And if this mole does exist, he’s doing a brilliant job of covering his tracks. The plan is to place someone equally clever on his trail, and Smiley is dragged out of retirement to make sense of a botched op in Budapest, an alleged rogue agent on the lam, and the whiff of a trail left behind by the just-deceased head of MI6 (John Hurt), who was convinced that the mole had to be one of only five men.
Tinker is the antithesis of a Bond thriller: instead of suave spies and deadly dames there are careerist politicians and MI6 bureaucrats whose quietly paranoid lives are grubby moreso than glamorous. And it’s brainpower instead of firepower that gets the job done, as Smiley works his way through a shades-of-grey world full of shadows and deception. The script is dense and subtle, and makes demands on a viewer unfamiliar with the labyrinthine story. But the reward is a riveting chess game of a film, with strong performances from A-list actors Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, and Ciarán Hinds. M
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy ★ ★
Directed byTomas Alfredson
Starring Mark Strong, John Hurt
R – 127 minutes
Continues at the Odeon