Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy the title is almost as well known as the rhyme it’s derived from, “Tinker Tailor, Soldier Sailor” and thanks to the magic of cinema with the recent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy film in conjunction with the miniseries and the original novel by John Le Carre. Forget Fleming Carre is the authority on intelligence, espionage and the lives and deaths of the spook. For the record I have read the book and loved it, I have also seen the miniseries starring Alec Guinness but I won’t be referring to the miniseries beyond this point it would just be confusing, and in my opinion unfair as it would be a false comparison. Both formats have strengths the other doesn’t. Oh and due to the nature of the plot, a mysterious interlinked and multi-layered conspiracy, I’m going to have to be a bit light on the details.
I was a bit worried when I first became aware of the this films production, my fingers have been burnt many times by needless remakes and in name only adaptation’s but I quick look at the cast list reassured me somewhat, with the likes of John Hurt, Colin Firth and Gary Oldman taking the lead roles, and further convinced that this would be worth giving a chance when noticing that John Le Carre was on hand as Executive Producer to but a stop to any really weird or unnecessary changes. The DVD also comes with an enlightening 30 minute interview with Le Carre about his time in the Intelligence Community and the inspiration for Tinker Tailor. I am also very pleased to announce that after giving the film a chance I was not disgusted or disappointed. There are many changes and omissions and to “purists” that’s a cardinal sin, however the film is just over two hours long with credits and if even the Directors cuts of the Lord of Rings couldn’t get every page on the screen this has no chance. When viewing an adaptation you just have to except that not everything will make it the switch, either for time and cost or because it simply wouldn’t have the same effect.
The acting is a prime example of not only excellent acting in its own right but translation done well. All the main characters have clear and recognisable traits from the novel, just with some alterations for time. A perfect example is John Hurt playing Control (his name is never given in the book, and the names he is given in other books are hinted to be fake) Control by the start of the book is the ex-leader of the “Circus” (British Intelligence) and dead. However his downfall is the start of the plot that drives the events in the present, and is frequently alluded to in flashbacks and reports. In the Novel he slowly but surely becomes unhinged and is marginalised by his eventual successor Percy Alleline and a group of important Lieutenant’s. In desperation he arranges a desperate plan to abduct a Czechoslovakian(1) General whom has very important information. This takes place over several chapters intermixed with Controls continued slide into despair, obviously that’ll take too long to show, so instead the film shows that even at his height Control not only hated Alleline but was always sharp and combative with everyone, meaning he had few friends when he finally screwed up. Essentially distilling the characters into their most prominent characteristics. George Smiley our protagonist and played brilliantly by Gary Oldman is much the same. His broken marriage and constant cuckolding by his wife Anne is barely touched on but the film does capture his passive resentment at getting chucked out with Control (Smiley was Control’s right hand man). And his subtle joy at being called upon again to uncover perhaps the best placed mole(2) the Soviets and more importantly Karla (the Soviet Intelligence Agent that Smiley is obsessed with besting) have whom coincidentally has to be one of the men whom forced him to retire. Sadly the other main characters from the book are greatly reduced; though the actors do a good job at making what small roles they have consistent with the book. I think the most noticeably diluted is Bill Haydon whose bisexuality is almost completely absent apart from one line at the very end, Colin Firth does convey his charisma and “man of action” persona.
The operation in Czechoslovakia is blown almost instantly, and the Agent sent on the mission is captured, War almost occurs and Control is forced out. The film starts with this operation only now its set in Hungary, odd I guess the film makers think we’d all forget about Czechoslovakia(3)? Anyway as an opening it’s a good choice, it lets the audience know that yes even though James Bond isn’t real spies do live dangerously, and establishes some of the norms of the intelligence service, and lets us in on the important main plot. The information Control was most interested in was the name of Soviet Intelligence asset dubbed witchcraft whom his rival Alleline has been using to get simply superb intelligence on Soviet Movements and plans, Control in addition to wanting to humiliated Alleline believes Witchcraft to be a deliberate leak by the Soviets to aide one of their Moles.
After that we follow Smiley from smoky room to smoky room as he tries to uncover the mystery by not much more then assessment analysis and getting his put upon friend Peter Guillam to go steal files and intelligence reports for him so he can read them a follow the paper trail. And unfortunately getting much further into the plot would put me in danger of ruining the surprise so before I move on I’ll say a couple of changes I believe are actually an improvement on the novel. One is a scene at a Christmas party that has Le Carre in a cameo but more importantly has a Santa Lenin, yes I’m serious it has a Santa Lenin. Another improvement involves a death scene, the way a certain character is killed in the book worried me because it would look either ridiculous or confusing on the screen and I could tell it was coming, thankfully they had the sense to alter the method of execution.
Now onto setting, the film takes place in the early 1970’s and it looks and feels like it. All wallpapers and furnishings are in those ghastly browns, beiges greys and oranges. All the cars look period and all the work rooms are full of smoke, which is a little odd since only one maybe two characters light up on screen, but it helps set the tone. No modern product placed gadgetry to break the immersion here. The music is quiet and understated, reinforcing the mood of the film, though if you strain to hear it you can tell it does do a good job of supporting the scenes taking place.
All in all I strongly encourage you to check the film out. If you like spy films but are a little exhausted with action films with plenty of explosions like James Bond and the Bourne films then you will find plenty to enjoy here. I also strongly recommend you check out the original novel if you liked the film as even though you’ll know the main plot there are plenty of sub plots and character depth that the film sadly had no choice but to ditch.
1: The book was written and set just a few years after “Prague Spring” of 1968 when Soviet Forces ousted the local Communist Party for “Revisionism” I.e. causing instability for the rest of the Eastern Bloc.
2: Despite how common the expression now is, it is believed the book was the first use of the term.
3: Czechoslovakia was broken up into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992.