Walking out of the darkness I turned to my wife and said the words that seemed to echo around me:
“I didn’t get it.”
George Smiley got it, at the top of the final reel. Sitting alone in his secret office above Liverpool Street station, listening over & over to Ricki Tarr’s testimony – “Moscow are laughing at us” – connections suddenly started clicking in Smiley’s mind, shots of the actual rail points switching intercutting with extreme close-ups of our quiet hero piecing it all together. The scene’s final frame is actually over his shoulder. We catch Smiley’s eyelashes flickering with the revelation in the light.
It’s a revelation to which we’re not privy, obviously, but I would have forgiven that exclusion wholeheartedly if the resultant entrapment of the treacherous mole had offered me any sense of satisfaction whatsoever. Sadly, as pressure was applied, information extracted, and the bait laid, I didn’t care. When the mole was finally revealed I felt absolutely nothing at all.
For those of you who haven’t read John Le Carre’s book or watched the 1979 classic BBC adaptation with Alec Guinness, this story begins with the head of ‘The Circus’ (Control, played by John Hurt) suspecting a Russian mole among his first lieutenants, Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Denick). Any one of those four could be feeding state secrets to the Soviets. When Control hears of a Hungarian General who supposedly knows the mole’s identity, he dispatches field agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Budapest. But they’re already waiting for him. The trap is sprung, Prideux is apparently killed, and the consequent tsunami of recrimination leaves Control dead in a hospital bed and his only trusted friend, George Smiley (Gary Oldman) out on the street with a redundancy cheque.
Alleline becomes the new Control and the other three close around him like a cabal. But which is the traitor? Field Agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) stumbles on the truth when he falls in love with Irina, the abused wife of a Russian spook. He wires the warning back to The Circus via the local bureau, but is stonewalled. When he returns the next morning he finds the bureau chief with his throat cut. Suddenly everyone wants Ricki dead, so he goes underground and, eventually, over Control’s head, warning a government contact about the mole. The suits then assign Smiley the task of unmasking the traitor.
‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ is an incisively intelligent movie, brilliantly played. Gary Oldman, in particular, gives the performance of a lifetime. He doesn’t say much – he makes Alec Guinness sound like Stacey Soloman – but delivers every line with absolute perfection for the part. For example, Ricki Tarr will only play ball if Smiley guarantees his beloved Irina’s extraction. Tarr wants a family, he doesn’t want to end up “like all you fuckers” alone in the dark, silently dining on secrets. Oldman pitches the line – “Ricki, I will do my utmost” – in a way that both convinces Tarr that he’ll try and convinces us that he already knows Irina is dead. It’s a line laced with the lie even as it needs the truth. It’s a line that compromises Smiley without undermining his integrity, and Oldman hits that note time after time. It’s an Oscar-worthy turn, for me, despite the movie’s overall ineffectiveness.
And it is ineffective, in its strangely elliptical way. It’s like watching two Grand Masters play the perfect chess game but only getting to see every third move. By checkmate you’re confused. Perhaps later you can backtrack, fill in the gaps and acknowledge the genius of it, but none of that stops the sense of anticlimax as you walk away from the board. Only forty minutes after leaving the theatre, with my elbows deep in dishwater, did I see how everything interconnected – of course he was the traitor, it was bloody obvious. I rocked back then and appreciated how every thought was manipulated with such elegance.
But that couldn’t make up for the not knowing, for watching the screen and wondering ‘How was the cabal compromised? Why is Esterhase folding so easily? How can Smiley single out only one when all four apparently stole documents?’ I felt no thrill as these events unfolded, as director Tomas Alfredson refused to move through the gears as the climax approached. I admired the serene pace of the first hour, it was a refreshing form of espionage in a post-Bourne world, but in the end the glacial detachment worked against it. Another half hour, another document-sneaking setpiece, and an extra red herring – anything to pinball my suspicions around the cabal a little more - might have made a difference, but as it was I could not remain engaged. On the contrary.
Brilliantly acted, beautifully recreated, but borderline boring.