Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Screen Version of John Le Carre’s Novel, Starring Gary Oldman and John Hurt

As intriguingly directed by Tomas Alfredson, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the film version of John le Carré’s 1974 bestselling novel, is an intelligent espionage thriller, which is both thematically and visually absorbing.

The screenplay adaptation, by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, has effectively compressed the lengthy novel, which had served as the basis for a very popular TV mini-series starring Alec Guinness, resulting in a richly dense and unusually condense feature, one that so meticulously constructed and well acted that you actually need to be attentive throughout the movie experience.

John le Carré, the prolific author of over 20 novels, comprehends the world of espionage better than others authors.  After all, he is a former member of Britain’s MI5 and MI6, who had worked undercover at the height of the Cold War.

George Smiley is considered by experts of Le Carre’s work to be his most famous character. Introduced in 1961 in the author’s first novel, “Call for the Dead,” the quiet, bright spy appears in some of le Carré’s best-known works, including his finest book, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” published in 1974.

As much as many of us critics and scholars detest the politics and paranoia of the Cold War, that particular social context has not only had huge impact on American pop culture, but has also produced some fine films and TV series.

The tale is set in 1973, when Nixon was still in power, and when the Cold War mentality—and zeitgeist–continued to define and, in many cases damage, international relations.

In the name of national security and personal safety of its citizens, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, aka MI6), code-named the Circus, aims to keep pace with the espionage institutions and grand efforts of other countries (especially the U.S.).

Playing one of his most colorful roles in decades, the gifted actor John Hurt is cast as Control, the head of the Circus.  He personally sees to it that his dedicated operative Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) is sent into Hungary. But Jim’s mission goes bloodily and uproariously awry, and Control is forced out of the Circus.  He is not the only one to be ousted: His top lieutenant, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a career spy with razor-sharp senses, also loses his job.

Life seems to have hit Smiley hard in every department, as he is also estranged from his absent wife Ann.  Called in to see under-secretary Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), Smiley is rehired in secret at the government’s behest. The decisions are based on the fears that the Circus has been compromised by a double agent—a mole–working for the Soviets and thus jeopardizing England’s security and status in the free world.

Smiley doesn’t operate alone.  He is supported by a younger agent, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), with whom he examines the Circus activities of the past and present. In trying to track and mole’s identify, Smiley is haunted by his former interaction (and obsession) with the shadowy Russian spy master Karla.

The mole’s trail remains cold until a maverick field, agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), unexpectedly contacts Lacon. Like Smiley, while undercover in Turkey, Ricki has fallen for a betrayed married woman, Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova), who claims to possess some crucial intelligence.

It doesn’t take long for Smiley to narrow down the list of potential suspects to five men.  They include the ambitious Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) code-named Tinker; the suavely confident Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) dubbed Tailor; the stalwart Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) called Soldier; the officious Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) dubbed Poor Man; and, of course, Smiley himself.

Considering the limitations of running time, the filmmakers have done a concise, inventive job at distilling the essence of the work in depicting the various emotional, psychological, and physical pressures under which the players operate, which continue to escalate—this being a deadly international spy game—until the very end, when the truth is revealed.

The superb casting of all the main personas ensures that the carefully calculated characters are also reflected in the meticulously modulated performances.

The book had been very successfully adapted for TV as a 1979 U.K. miniseries with Alec Guinness playing Smiley. As it was a highly esteemed production, it was quite brave of le Carré to give his blessing for a new take on his seminal tome.

Swedish Director Alfredson, who has achieved a name for himself as a result of his terrific youth vampire feature “Let the Right One In,” benefits from the passage of time. It has been 32 years since the miniseries, and meanwhile the Berlin Wall had crumbled (in 1989), which gives him an opportunity to make a more detached and objective film for contemporary viewers, many of whom were not even born when the TV series aired.