(Published in The Sunday Guardian on 15 January, 2012, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/intricate-a-nuanced)
Cast: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch, Simon McBurney
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Rating: 4.5 stars
When a two-hour film is based on a book that’s part of a series, how do you bring the audience up to speed? You don’t. You can’t. You choose a group of brilliant actors, and trust them to let the audience sense what’s going on. If viewers haven’t read John le Carré’s book of the same name, they’ll have to watch the film twice.
The opening scene sets the tone. Control (John Hurt), the head of The Circus –codenames are the only concession this story makes to the espionage genre – sends Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) on a confidential mission to Budapest, where a Hungarian General is willing to sell “treasure”: the name of a mole planted by Russians, right at the top of British Intelligence.
The debacle that follows disgraces Control and forces his right-hand man George Smiley (Gary Oldman) into premature retirement. Smiley is secretly brought back by Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) to ferret out the mole.
Wheels spin within wheels as his only ally Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) is confronted by The Circus, now headed by Percy Alleline (Toby Jones). The whole of its top echelon – Alleline, Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) – is suspect, and the shades of grey in the narrative compound those of the cinematography.
The suspense is maintained till the end, though you may feel you got it right in retrospect. One of the actors may be rather too good, dropping hints with his shifty body language. But then, the story’s swimming with red herrings.
With languorous flashbacks, chronology is one of the many things you’re kept guessing at. There are symbols – a bee in the bonnet of a car, a game of chess – and poignant images: an infant trying to suckle at a woman with a bullet through her head. Mostly, there are tired, wary, disillusioned men reflecting in quiet rooms, alternately drained and invigorated by mentoring their protégés.
This is what intelligence gathering is really about, not being able to trust your spouse, not being able to trust your best friend, one thinks. Having served in the MI5 and MI6, where he was betrayed by a mole, John le Carré knows how it works. And he leaves his stamp on the film, which he co-produced. As you reflect on the movie, it may surprise you to think of how little violence you actually saw, and how much of it was in your mind.
Verdict: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy demands some work, and more than one watch; but it’s worth it.