Toward the end of Tomas Alfredson’s film of John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, an elusive double-agent, who’s betrayed British state secrets to the Soviet Union for over 20 years, defends his decision to have done so on aesthetic grounds. And you can hardly blame the bloke, considering the portrait of early-’70s London that the director paints from the start. Let the Right One In, his Swedish sleeper hit, covered some of the same well-trod Transylvanian ground as Twilight, but was enveloped in the ghost-story fog of an adolescent daydream rather than the pulpy throes of paperback romance. Atmospherically, T2S2 doesn’t disappoint. It’s almost lusciously wretched: Sartorially, the establishment seems to have given in to the dressed-down 1960s rather than embraced it. Hair is longer and skirts are shorter, but the Swinging London façade of the Beatles and Blow-Up has all but corroded; it’s been reabsorbed into An Education-era tattiness like a mouse in Mountain Dew. Nowhere is the closing gap between generations more visually odious than among agents of the Mi6—referred to here as “the Circus”—who felt their oats fighting the Nazis, but have since lost their grain, and purpose, to their burlier American counterparts. The wall of their cramped conference room is brazed with burnt-orange acoustic tiles; at their Christmas party, they’re regaled with a chintzy disco cover of “La Mer.” Victoria’s Empire has gone to seed. And as fascinating—visually—as that is to behold, it undercuts one’s interest in the plot—as if the production designers were double-agents, too. Alfredson cites The Conformist as an influence; but Bertolucci rhapsodized Mussolini’s Italy, even its moral ugliness, whereas this look at pre-Thatcher England is drenched with boredom.
Le Carré’s hero is a veteran spy named George Smiley. The character is often described as anti-Bond; a paunchy, patient, middle-aged martinet, he’s more-than-anti-Lisbeth Slander. As embodied here by Gary Oldman, he’s been plucked from forced retirement to finish an internal-affairs investigation initiated by his now-deceased boss called Control (played, in flashbacks, by John Hurt—who looks ready to pull a coronary from his pocket at a moment’s notice). To say that the story is about Smiley unearthing the above-mentioned style-conscious mole is to untangle a corn maze and torture it into a straight line; but, at each twist and turn, this labyrinth is chocked full of mannered British gents pecking away at Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s dialogue as if it were their elevenses. The main problem confronting the filmmakers—more than paucity of action and density of plot—is the fact that most of the relationships between the characters are sketchy; by design, these Circus performers are less like acrobatic secret agents and more like lions brought in from the wild, their urge to escape all but tamed. (The irony here is wicked, but it isn’t necessarily involving.) What may be meant as reserve comes across more as resignation—as if, with the depreciation in value of British national security, everything else has gone belly-up.
That includes the patchy narrative. If you’ll permit me a SPOILER ALERT, the issue of the double-agent’s identity is dramatically null: If more attention were directed at that character, it would be too obvious; but since there’s so little attention given to him (other than the big red flag that he’s played by Colin Firth), or our hero’s feelings of betrayal—since this mole has also burrowed into Smiley’s wife—the revelation comes at the cost of anything like suspense or emotional attachment. (The celebrated 1979 BBC-TV version, starring Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley, wasn’t immune to this, either; though, strangely enough, it made a richer sound when striking its psychosexual chords.) But even if, in terms of intrigue, Alfredson can’t beat, say, the first few episodes of Homeland, he can impart a sense of imperial longing that American audiences can connect with right now—in the way I think they connected with An Education. The irony, of course, is that members of the Homeland Security department—and those that have benefited financially from its de facto privatization—are among those least likely to feel the pinch. But anyone else who was ever once assured of our national top-dog status, and now has his doubts, might be advised to watch how Smiley, after a brandy or two, recounts meeting his Soviet adversary Karla at a time when the latter’s position was politically vulnerable. Oldman—whose bullfroggy jowls make him live up to his surname—pantomimes this interaction for a junior officer, going through a tired West-is-best spiel that sticks to the Red idealist like grease on a Teflon pan. (This is much more effectively handled than it was in the miniseries, which flashed back to Guinness interrogating Karla. But since Guinness played Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Patrick Stewart (the future Captain Picard) played Karla, and, on top of that, Oldman is telling this story to an agent played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who was just cast as the villain in the next Star Trek prequel—it’s enough to coldcock the space-time continuum.) Oldman says that he saw Smiley as someone coming from a position of “moral certainty,” which may explain why his impassive stare looks vaguely pompous whereas Guinness’s seemed slightly abashed. In short, Oldman’s frowny Smiley is the kind of Brit that Sid and Nancy fought to break free from. He’s a fine mascot for the film’s mood: There are so many secrets lurking behind these spies’ wrinkled poker faces; but all that their dedicated stoicism has amounted to is their birthrights being washed away. Call it a royal flush.