The Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s peerlessly eerie vampire opus Let the Right One In might have been a warm-up for his adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which features even scarier ghouls: Cold War British MI6 agents who feed on one another’s fears and skulk about in shadows. Against a Soviet foe even more ruthless and shrouded, Le Carré’s characters (modeled on men he knew well) inhabit a twilit world in which the usual dehumanizing effects of bureaucracy get a boost from the sibling forces of patriotism and paranoia. Lives are lost because of mindless office power struggles. “Bloody red tape” can be just that. A mole doesn’t stand out when everyone has secrets and looks guilty as sin.
Do we need another Tinker, Tailor? We rarely need any remake, and John Irvin’s solemn seven-part 1979 BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley is particularly indelible. Dry and furtive by temperament, Guinness could be faceless, unimposing, then startlingly caustic, revealing a mean intelligence. It’s no wonder Le Carré couldn’t get the actor out of his head. Every episode of the miniseries (now on DVD from Acorn Media) ends with the echo-y sound of a boys’ choir that conjures up the chapels of schools like Eton, where cold warriors’ characters were formed, where rigid codes of conduct made excellent cover for the lashings and buggerings that were so much a part of that generation’s upbringing.
At a shade over two hours, Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor gets right to the point, and the first half-hour is a hash: short scenes of people we don’t know doing things we can’t follow. You have to infer that it’s the early seventies; that “the Circus” to which the characters refer is MI6, the British equivalent of the CIA; that when they say “C,” which stands for “Control,” they refer to their mysterious chief (played by John Hurt); and that the “Karla” everyone talks about is a Soviet spymaster who has allegedly planted a mole in the Circus’s upper echelon. You have to think back to the days of double agents, some of whom turned out to be double–double agents who pretended to have turned against their country but were trading not-so-valuable intelligence for access to more vital secrets. Meanwhile, Gary Oldman, the new Smiley, doesn’t say a word for the first eighteen minutes.
Oldman would not have been my first—or, for that matter, tenth—choice for him. Unlike Guinness, he’s a natural hot dog, and his reticence here is a stunt. But I grew to appreciate him. Behind that phlegmatic exterior are hard eyes that have seen—even approved—too much torture and killing. Oldman’s Smiley will never be warm, never function fully as a human being. He will, however, endeavor to be upright, which makes him, in this context, a moral giant. After he’s expelled along with Control after a top-secret Budapest mission gets an agent (Mark Strong) gunned down, he learns that the Circus has fingered a list of five untrustworthy men: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), and Smiley himself. At the behest of a government official (Simon McBurney), Smiley comes back to determine which is the Soviet mole—to spy on the spies.
Once he got going, I was thrilled to pieces all over again. It’s a treat to be back in Le Carré’s world, where amid the tangle of plots and counterplots there are moments of lucidity when you sit up and say, “I’ve got it now!” The first hook is Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr, a Circus assassin who vanishes for months, then shows up in Smiley’s house with a story about a woman who nearly revealed the name of the mole—before she was captured by the Soviets. He wants Smiley to save her, and when Hardy wants something, you feel it: With his huge lips and tortured beauty, this young actor is among the most compelling of his generation, and the lovely Svetlana Khodchenkova breaks your heart as the woman he can’t protect.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is full of faces you’ll love to study, like the one belonging to Benedict Cumberbatch as Smiley’s aide, with his hooded eyes and impossibly high cheekbones. Hurt’s chain-smoking Control is a human husk, as if his innards have been blackened and charred by suspicion. Kathy Burke plays the lone female Circus officer we meet as a plump mother figure full of naughty inside knowledge. Colin Firth has stripped himself down to pure old-boy condescension.
I’ve heard it said that Le Carré’s work lost its savor with the end of the Cold War, which is as dumb as discounting Coriolanus because Romans and Volscians are no longer killing each other. Le Carré’s subject was the national character and what happened to it under threat and in the absence of public scrutiny. It could hardly be, mutatis mutandis, more contemporary.