Now available on DVD, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” adapted from John le Carre’s best-selling novel, was first brought to the screen in the BBC’s 1979 version. Starring Sir Alec Guiness as George Smiley, of the British M16 intelligence agency (which le Carre dubbed “the Circus”), the television series ran to six episodes, just over five hours long. So it could capture the intricate workings of the plot, it told the back stories lurking behind every raised eyebrow and half-smile among the somewhat opaque characters.
The current number, with Gary Oldman playing the ironically-named Smiley, runs just over two hours, though it may seem like three, given the torpor of what action there is. Oh, there are shootings, throat slashings, and threats to international peace, all right, but you won’t be confusing this movie with “Mission Impossible.” It takes place almost entirely indoors, and it comprises a series of small discoveries, rather than Big Fight Scenes. Rated “PG-13,” it should turn off even the most assiduous, focused teenager and will likely confound many an adult viewer.
That said, there’s much to be admired here, including Oldman’s Oscar-nominated star turn as the taciturn, soft-spoken or silent Smiley, Colin Firth and John Hurt in critical supporting roles, and the most understated production design in recent memory. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and director Tomas Alfredson convey a dreary, rainy London and the even less appealing smoky interiors of M16’s bureaucratic warren. And Alberto Iglesias’s musical score subtly underpins the equally restrained movements onscreen.
But the screenplay, by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor, simply tries to pack too much into too little space. The multiple flashbacks, while artfully handled, often confuse rather than edify the viewer, making an already Byzantine plot that much harder to follow. Though patience in waiting for references and allusions to be explained is rewarded (mostly), many viewers will understandably hit “stop” long before being enlightened.
The story begins in 1973, and the British intelligence community, still unsettled by the defection of double agent Kim Philby a decade earlier, has another “mole” lurking in its upper circles. Smiley’s assignment—which he decides to accept even though he has been recently fired from The Circus--is to ferret out the one or ones who have been passing along secrets to the Russians. Aided only by young Peter Guillaume (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his own ability to piece together fact and intuition, history and present reality, Smiley succeeds, though not without a lot of painful recollection and some double-dealing of his own.
Indeed, nobody comes off looking all that noble or even good, le Carre’s jaundiced view of the spy business coloring all the characters. It’s a realistic take, certainly, but one that did not pull people into the cineplexes—though it did garner several Oscar nominations. If you’re willing to concentrate on following the action, and if you’ve read the novel, chances are good you’ll like the movie. Otherwise—not so much.