Cannon Fodder is Required
Control detested failure as he detested illness, and his own failures most. He knew that to recognise failure was to live with it; that a service that did not struggle did not survive. He detested the silk-shirt agents, who hogged large chunks of the budget to the detriment of the bread-and-butter networks in which he put his faith. He loved success, but he detested miracles if they put the rest of his endeavor out of focus. He detested weakness as he detested sentiment and religion, and he detested Percy Alleline, who had a dash of most of them.
—Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carre
It’s a dirty business, the spy game. Readers of John le Carre’s novels know this well. In his stories featuring George Smiley—whose actual job in the British spy service is never quite elucidated—le Carre spends almost as much time laying out the functioning of the service’s ladders of bureaucracy as he does showing how the agents parry and feint with their Soviet counterparts. Such details help to lull readers into a false sense of normalcy that makes the more inhuman parts of the agents’ jobs that much more shocking.
In his slowly paced, dirty-minded adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, director Tomas Alfredson is faithful to the painstaking part of le Carre’s baroque and cynical fictions, almost to a fault. It’s 1973 and the British spy service is in crisis. The old leadership has been shown the door, following a blown operation the year before, in which an agent was shot in a very public and embarrassing way, in a Bucharest alley while trying to bring over a defector. Of course, not long after the new crew is installed at the head of the agency—which everyone calls the Circus—a whisper starts making the rounds that the Soviets have a mole at the highest level. (According to popular legend, le Carre, who briefly worked in the intelligence racket, actually introduced the term “mole” into the lexicon with this novel.) The Circus must then turn to one of the men they’ve just dismissed, the mole-like and ironically named Smiley (Gary Oldman), to bring the matter to light.
In most popular spy fictions, that would be the backstory, or something that crops up in the last reel. But here, the accumulation of data scraps that Smiley pulls together with the help of a few sharp associates and a steel-trap mind, is the story. Smiley is so far removed from spy-flick heroism that he’s fitted at the film’s beginning with a new pair of glasses that make him look like a senior citizen. (Oldman isn’t as chubby as the Smiley of the novels, but his quiet, nightwatchmen’s mien is spot-on.) To the knowledge of everybody around him, Smiley is also being rather brazenly cuckolded by at least one of his coworkers. But when you stack this dour-faced specter of a man against the flashier ones he’s chasing, tortoise-and-hare rules seem to apply.
Smiley’s old boss, Control (John Hurt, cropping up in flashbacks like a gravel-voiced specter), is dead, replaced by a crop of clubby types, terribly impressed with some deep intelligence straight from a source in the Kremlin they’re calling Witchcraft. Smiley picks up the threads of what Control had been trying to knit together and realizes that the mole must be one of the new batch who succeeded him. It’s a rogues’ gallery, from the appropriately monikered Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), to the bitchy and bureaucratic knife-fighters Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), to the polyamorous and jocose Bill Haydon (Colin Firth).
Dancing around the outside of this bunch and feeding into Smiley’s slow and steady hunt are a couple of what the office boys would call “scalp-hunters.” These are rougher types played by Mark Strong and Tom Hardy, who bring a vivid sense of injustice at the things they are called upon to do in the dark, remote battlefields of the Cold War. They, along with the sensible-shoe-wearing secretaries who transcribe tapes from all those bugs the spies have planted, are reminders that this all is in fact a war—even if it’s low-intensity and waged from an office building—and thus cannon fodder is required.
Alfredson films Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with all the pinpoint care of his superb vampire film Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in). As in that film, the interiors here are mired in a sort of late-afternoon boredom and period drabness, offices and homes that form a wasteland of pebbled glass, lousy wallpaper, and smoke-filled air. Also like that film, in Tinker, precision can turn occasionally to fussiness, with a few sections that lag more than they need to, even by the standards of a faithful adaptation.
As well, Alfredson might have found a better replacement for the book’s busy, knotted narration than frequent stretches of silence. It’s an approach that pays off in the end, though. When Smiley and his small team start springing their trap, the film begins to snap all the loose ends off like dry twigs. The story comes together with the cool fierceness of a chess game, when the player unleashes all his best moves in one predatory flurry. Not a moment too soon.