Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Deck: A retired secret agent is brought back secretly to search out the double agent at the top of British secret intelligence

Stars: ** (only two stars, for incomprehensibility rather than poor moviemaking)

Cast: Gary Oldman (George Smiley), Colin Firth (Bill Haydon), Tom Hardy (Ricki Tarr), John Hurt (Control), Toby Jones (Percy Alleline), Mark Strong (Jim Prideaux), Ciarin Hinds (Roy Blands)

This might be an excellent movie; it certainly looks impressive. But I’m only a little less baffled now, after reading up on the storyline, than I was when I walked out of the theater. Suffice it to say that reviews by people who had already read the novel, or viewed the 7-part BBC series, regard the movie with great appreciation. Those who didn’t already know the storyline range from appreciative-but-puzzled to frustrated-and-annoyed.

The central problem may be hinted at, above; a story that takes 400 pages in print, and five-plus hours on TV, is going to be cryptic at a smidge over two hours. It’s a spy story, so cryptic is a propos, but give us a break: in addition to the intended mystery (who’s the mole at the top of British intelligence?), there’s a deluge of elements that are mysterious simply because too much is going by too fast. It’s fun to puzzle out a movie mystery, but the game is playable only if you’re able to gather and assemble the clues as they’re dropped.

The story takes place in London, at the Secret Intelligence Service, a modern building ingeniously concealed in the spacious inner courtyard of a large but nondescript, block-square outer building. There are a lot of characters, nearly all white men in suits. The story opens with “Control,” chief of the Service (called “the Circus,” for its location at Cambridge Circus), sending one of their “scalphunters” (agents trained for dirty work) to Budapest to meet with a communist general who wants to defect. But things go disastrously wrong, and Control is forced to retire, as is his “right hand man,” George Smiley.

However, a senior government official contacts Smiley privately and asks him to investigate a choice bit of information: there is a double agent at the top of the Circus. At that rank there are four possible candidates: Percy Alleline, Bill Haydon, Roy Bland, and Toby Esterhase (and many thanks to the casting director, who chose for these roles four actors very different in appearance). Control has by now died, but Smiley and his assistant Peter get into his apartment and find that he, too, suspected a mole. He nicknamed them “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier…” (after the English version of the children’s rhyme that begins “Rich man, poor man” in the US). There are four chess pieces on Control’s desk, and taped to each one is a photo of a suspect: Alleline, Haydon, Bland, and Esterhase. Make that five chessmen: the fifth bears a photo of Smiley.

It’s a beautiful film, visually. The 70s décor, clothing, and music has been perfect executed, and the rainy streets and falling leaves create a mood of quiet poignancy. Though there are episodes of violence and action (and some hideous brief shots of dead bodies), they’re over quickly; we are continually being returned to a very still, calm world, as Smiley puts together clues with the patience of a watchmaker. Though he surely has wounds—early in the film, another character says, “I heard Ann has left you again”—he is consistently unemotional, both alert and tranquil. Gary Oldman’s portrayal creates a center of gravity that the whole film orbits around. It’s quite a change of pace for the actor whose other roles include Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald, Dracula, Sirius Black, Elvis, Pontius Pilate, and the devil. The director, Tomas Alfredson, was best known previously for Let the Right One In (2008), a teen-vampire movie. You’d never know it.

There’s much to praise, artistically, but the movie is hampered by the opacity of the plot. I had an unfair assist in that our screening audience was given a handsome printed folio, resembling a top-secret briefing document, that set up the premise and included photos, rank, and names of many of the main players (13 of these characters were included, but that turned out to be only a start). It also included a glossary of code names, like “scalphunters,” and helpful information such as “Each floor of the building represents a different …level of security…[W]orkers on a floor other than their designated one will immediately appear out of place and/or suspicious.” Nice to know, but I expect most moviegoers won’t receive this cheat sheet, and be even more lost than I was.

The ending wasn’t an absolute surprise; there were enough hints along the way. But what puzzles me, as I think back, is the great number of other things that happened that I still don’t know how to fit into the story. How do you solve the problem of a movie that is, not only suspenseful, but impenetrable? Do you read up on the storyline before going to see the film? But would you really want to entirely spoil the plot? It’s a dilemma. One reviewer said that he found the first viewing baffling and the second illuminating; I expect that’s the solution the studio would most heartily endorse.

Talk About It [3-5 Questions]

1. Smiley visits a retired colleague, Connie, and they look over photos from their time together in the service, during World War II. Connie smiles and says, “It was a good time back then,” and Smiley remonstrates: “It was a war, Carla.” She says, “A war we could be proud of.” The Cold War that followed was, by contrast, a time of debilitating anxiety, with few clear courses of action. Is “a war we could be proud of” a better thing?

2. Early in the film a bee in a car annoys characters who swat at it, but Smiley calmly opens a window and lets it out. Later, another character has an encounter with an owl that doesn’t go as smoothly. Do you think these scenes are meant to be viewed in contrast, revealing different sides of the characters?

3. The publicity folio defines “Scalphunters” as the “Section of the Circus that deals with the darker side of the job; blackmail, burglary, kidnap and assassination.” Do you think our nation’s intelligence has such a section? Should it?

The Family Corner

Too much violence for little ones, and some revolting shots of murder victims. Some nudity in a long-shot sex scene and slurpy close-up kissing.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

Movie Reviews