The title Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy refers to a nursery rhyme that I never heard of before. It goes:
- Tinker, Tailor,
- Soldier, Sailor,
- Rich Man, Poor Man,
- Beggar Man, Thief
For dumb Americans like me, there’s no real need to understand the rhyme to understand the movie, but it’s nice that the screenwriters managed to sneak in all the names into the film. Anyway, that’s a really unnecessary diversion, but interesting to me.
The film is a period piece (filmed on what seems to be 1970’s film stock), taking place in London in the mid-70s, during the warmest part of the Cold War. Control (John Hurt, playing his role semi-crazy) is in charge of British Intelligence, and he has come to believe one of his inner circle is a mole working for the Russians. There are, technically, five suspects, but only the most cynical of moviegoers (e.g. me) would think that George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is really the mole, hence our four code-name title.
Smiley is brought in from his forced retirement to ferret out the bad guy. He has precious few allies (notably Guillam, played well by Benedict Cumberbatch) and limited resources. What he has is an outstanding knowledge of “The Circus”, what they call MI-6, as well as of the parallel organization in Russia, run by the shadowy Karla.
For a character named Smiley, there’s precious little smiling coming from Oldman in the part. He plays it super-closed, super-controlled. He only has a few moments to let his inner self sneak out where the audience can see it, and he works those moments like a pro. But it’s just as enjoyable to watch his slight movements, listen to his steady voice, see the wheels turning in his eyes as he works through the puzzle.
The story is immensely complicated, which I appreciated. Many important reveals are reserved for a simple shot, a second or two that visually gives us some information, then the film moves on. It’s an interesting sort of pacing. Within a scene, there may be lots of quiet, still moments as we watch Smiley living his life. But the pace of intercutting keeps a modern viewer invested in what could have been a talky, boring story.
One interesting choice was how director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) chose to portray the two most important people in Smiley’s life. Karla, his Russian nemesis, is behind the scenes, sometimes visible as a hand, or a torso. We never see his face. And Smiley’s estranged wife Ann is similarly always in shadow, a cascade of dark curls that never resolves into a face. I don’t know if this was a ploy to keep casting options open if they plan to film any of the following Smiley novels, or if that was purely an artistic choice. Either way, it works.
The other thing that is left out of the film is the motivation for all this high-stakes spy stuff. At no point is it explained why the Brits and the Russians are at odds. There is no discussion of Communism vs. Capitalism. There is no description of the USSR’s takeover of Eastern Europe. In fact, the only indication that there’s any difference between the two sides is the fact that the Brits don’t (generally) torture and kill their captives. The machinations of the Cold War are reduced to abstractions, devoid of moral implication. That’s kind of a bold choice, but it does help to make the film a little more timeless. Nations will always have enemies, and whether those enemies are politically or economically or ideologically motivated, there will have to be people like George Smiley protecting us.