The earliest known use of the phrase “stiff upper lip”—commonly used to refer to British reserve—in fact comes from the newspaper The Massachusetts Spy. Now spies and stiff upper lips are together again in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the new adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 bestseller.
Control is so essential a trait of this spy story that one character goes by that name. Call the British foreign intelligence agency SIS or MI6, but le Carré’s characters call it “the Circus,” run by Control (John Hurt) out of smoke-filled rooms. In 1973, a botched attempt to discover the identity of a double agent results in a seriously wounded field officer, international tensions, and curtailed careers for Control and trusted lieutenant George Smiley (Gary Oldman).
A hapless civil servant asks Smiley to come out of retirement to root out the “mole” hiding in plain sight within the Circus’ inner circle. With rueful cheek, Control had code-named the suspects "Tinker" (Toby Jones’ Percy Alleline), "Tailor" (Colin Firth’s Bill Haydon), "Soldier" (Ciarán Hinds’ Roy Bland) and "Poorman" (David Dencik’s Toby Esterhase). Smiley has a history with, and closely held opinions of, all of them, but with characteristic calm he begins his investigation, aided by the loyal but somewhat nervous Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch).
On the page and on the screen, it’s a story of shoe leather expended and upholstery worn as Smiley ambles about to interview sources or simply sits and ponders the latest intelligence. The story also serves as le Carré’s meditation on the national wound that was the “Cambridge Five” spy ring, but it’s not all business: private betrayals assure that this time, it’s personal.
Tomas Alfredson—who made a big splash with the vampire drama Let the Right One In—evokes the ’70s in sallow tones and hazy interiors that match the pervading sense of creeping corruption. The sickly visuals and waxy-looking characters may remind of vampires, but they also intriguingly offset the story’s high stakes. Though they are obvious in the Budapest-set prologue, as Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) takes a bullet while seeking the identity of the mole, Alfredson proves just as expert in fashioning tension in soft-spoken dialogues.
Inseparable from the film’s success is the performance of Gary Oldman, long one of cinema’s most potent actors. Alfredson makes a motif of the back of Smiley’s head, a symbol of his unreadable thoughts, but Oldman’s face proves nearly as inscrutable. With great subtlety, Oldman demonstrates what makes Smiley an extraordinary spy: his insistence upon taking in more than he lets slip. Whether coolly dispatching a fly or eating a Wimpy burger with knife and fork, Oldman carefully makes every gesture part of his quiet revelation of character. And he does it all with a genteel tip of the hat to Alec Guinness, who famously played Smiley for the BBC.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a classic of the spy genre, and Alfredson’s film approximates for us the sifting of intel that is Smiley’s stock in trade while never insulting our intelligence. But equally important to the film’s appeal is its keen understanding of the politics of the workplace, emblematized by a Christmas party that, all false smiles, haunts the film in flashback. And at that party, among the guests, keen observers will spot John le Carré, the spy turned author who started it all.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]