Faith & Film: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

I recently enjoyed the current “Mission: Impossible” movie, with beautiful people and locations, lots of gadgets, car chases and special effects. In my review, I said it was like the best of the James Bond movies.

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” the new movie based on John Le Carre’s 1973 novel, could hardly be more different than “Mission: Impossible” and James Bond. In Le Carre’s world, espionage takes place in dreary buildings carried out by decidedly non-glamorous looking people. “Tinker, Tailor” is a spy film more reminiscent of British thrillers like “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” (also based on a Le Carre novel) or “The Ipcress File.” The plot is so intricate that I’m not really sure exactly what happened in the film. But from the beginning, I was so drawn into the world of the Cold War 40 years ago that I was as engrossed as if I were reading a good novel.

Our main character, ironically named George Smiley, has put in many years for British Intelligence. Smiley is smart and seasoned, but also meticulous and world-weary; he’s like the antithesis of James Bond. A Russian mole has infiltrated British Intelligence, and it’s up to Smiley to find him. Gary Oldman has received an Oscar nomination for his fine performance as the non-smiling Smiley. A large cast of British actors, including last year’s Oscar winner Colin Firth, play the suspects in this elaborate puzzle. All are excellent.

The film is expertly directed by Tomas Alfredson, adapted for the screen by Bridget O’Conner and Peter Straughan, with great photography and production design. Every scene is expertly composed. The non-descript bureaucratic offices, full of clacking typewriters, teletype machines (remember those?), and dusty drawers full of manila files, draw the viewer into a Kafka-esque 1970s maze. British Intelligence could be any other drab government department. Yet, the viewer is drawn into this intricate maze little by little. Gadgets and special effects will not reveal the mole in this film, but hard work, intuition, and a careful analysis of all the clues. This is the kind of movie in which smuggling a file from the department library is incredibly suspenseful. Extended scenes occur in Budapest (where a key scene in “Mission: Impossible” also takes place) and Istanbul. These foreign locations are dangerous settings for violence, torture, and sex. Though not pervasive, these scenes are shocking when juxtaposed to bureaucratic London.

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” demands full attention and patience. It’s not always easy to follow, especially for those like myself who have not read the novel or the celebrated BBC miniseries starring Alec Guiness. But I was hooked from the beginning and never gave in to frustration as I might with a lesser film. Rather than give up, I am eager to watch it again on DVD to see how Smiley discovers the mole.

Tom Condon, OP