The 2011 cinematic version of Le Carre’s finest novel, Tinker, Tailor is a competent procedural that manages to tell the story of a 1970s British mole hunt with diligent attention to period atmosphere. Those unfamiliar with the book or lyrically accurate and evocative 1970s BBC mini-series with Alec Guiness likely will find the movie fine entertainment.
Both the book and BBC series at heart are about layers of betrayal: to colleagues, to institutions, to ‘set’ or social caste, to spouses, to country and ultimately disappointed life entitlement. It’s no accident the BBC series’ credits roll with Oxford spires and a choral lament. That is the alpha and omega of the story. None of that is in the movie. And thus we are left with something less.
The movie also misses a key character. 1970s Britain. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson works overtime to pull the viewer into his re-created 1970s world. Shot after shot lingers on mini-skirted extras, 1970s furniture rejected by “Mad Men” as not innocently 60’s enough, period wall paper in the background and lots of 1970s cars. The film chromatic scale even seeks to lure the viewer in. Yet it’s a manufactured strain that still can’t capture what the BBC cameras did effortlessly — London (and Oxford) as imperial detritus, floating on memory.
The screenplay invents some new scenes and omits others but like a good CSI or NCIS episode tells how a British mole burrowed to the aorta of British intelligence and turned it all into an arm of Moscow Center. When confronted after capture the movie’s mole declares his rationale “I made my mark.” Very 21st Century. In the book and BBC series, this scene is a complex fugue like crescendo of all the cascading betrayals.
The major theme? Young men working in intelligence during WW II, recruited from Oxford to rule the world themselves betrayed by fate. Their youthful expectations to preside over an empire invisibly now just a bitter joke in a world of American and Soviet preponderance. The movie doesn’t touch this but inserts serial betrayal as simply dastardly acts. Tinker, Tailor on Auto Tune.
Some changes are just odd. The original plot device to start the book and BBC series is a sabotaged covert mission to Warsaw Pact Czechoslovakia. The cat’s paw here was fake Soviet mobilization along the NATO border to trigger a crisis in London. For some reason, the movie puts this mission to Budapest and Hungary. Why? Soviet mobilization in Hungary? Even then. Puzzling, maybe, but yawn.
Perhaps modern audiences can’t conceive of Czechoslovakia as ferrin enough. After all, Czech super models adorn beaches from the Aegean, Dubai to the Hamptons. The whole “New Europe” thing? American BMD sites? Recently departed Vaclav Havel being so familiar for decades ? So . . . Hungary?
We felt the movie generally miscast but the acting solid and serving the truncated procedural format. Our new Smiley, as mole hunting protagonist, is stoic and purposeful, with hesitancy intended to show character. Gone is the apparently befuddled, genuinely uncertain (about Ann and many things) Smiley, quiet but with intellectual stride. Gary Oldman, Commissioner Gordon from Batman to you kool kidz, said he modeled his take on Le Carre himself.
Oldman in one or two shots is shown to act physically weak. That’s age but not character. Oldman’s Smiley vehemently confronts Lacon and The Minister that they’ve been duped by The Mole, etc. Oldman’s viscerally assertive, combative and unabashedly confrontational. The anti-Smiley. On all counts. But exactly what a 127 minute procedural format requires.
The rest of the major cast are too young to be men of WW II now in the 1970s. John Hurt, playing Control, rips off his earlier portrayal of Chancellor Sutler from “V for Vendetta”. (We did think about a chest burster but that’s just us). His Control is a alcoholic who likes to socialize with the staff. The movie abandons Control’s journey of quietly frantic desperation to fend off an internal coup. That would have been more valuable than the fabricated scenes of his drinking and carousing.
Similarly, we thought fabricated scenes of violence gratuitous. They seemed tacked on to remind today’s audience that “THE SOVIETS ARE MEAN.” Maybe that was the smart thing to do.
The Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux cast in the movie are improbable urchins. Both actors are fine, but there’s no way in hell that Prideaux, the spy betrayed in
Czechoslovakia Hungary was “Old Circus” – i.e. an institutional legend, whose stature in fall would topple Control from his throne. This Prideaux looks like the guy you see when you walk by Charles Schwab who welcomes new customers. Haydon, too. Far too young to be the foundational superstar. The movie’s Haydon plays the louche well but simply lacks the internal, instinctive Christ Church hauteur essential to his Miltonian Fall. And without that, all you have “I made a mark.”
A few minor quibbles with supporting roles. Toby and Bland get so little screen time their performances don’t register much. Greatly missing, however, is Toby’s unctuous superciliousness. Ricki Tarr comes across as a petulant tennis coach. His time on screen outsized given sacrifices forced on other characters in the screenplay.
Percy in this movie is a complete fumble. YMMV. And Peter Guillam? What’s with that?
Lacon, the permanent career intelligence functionary is reduced on screen to a quasi- accountant/minder (who plays squash). Gone are his estate, the foundation of his knighthood and pre-occupation with order and appearance. Again missing are motivations and impulses driven from entitlement and prestige. Perhaps this is surgical precision here – if that overarching theme is absent why provide Lacon the buttressing details?
All in all, the audience appeared to enjoy the movie a great deal. If Smiley here is not quite Horatio Cane or Gibbs he still wraps up the puzzle nicely in 127 minutes (and is shown at close assuming Control’s throne (again out of character) triumphantly). We give it a good 3 Leos out of 5. Those less immersed in the BBC series or book may rate it higher.