When we think of spy movies, our minds instinctively gravitate towards certain conventions: nifty gadgets, exotic locales, dangerously beautiful women, nefarious conspiracies—and, eventually, fights, shootouts and car chases that obliterate any possibility of secrecy or deniability. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course; those movies are popular for a reason, and I loved Skyfall and the Bourne trilogy as much as anybody. But that’s entertainment espionage, refracted through a mass-market Hollywood lens, and as fun as it often is, it’s not the only way to make a compelling spy movie. There have always been those that take a more subdued approach, aiming instead to immerse us in a shadowy, paranoid world where trust, certainty, and moral clarity are luxuries the characters can ill afford. Tomas Alfredson’s gripping 2011 thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is something like a perfect distillation of this understated aesthetic: relatively light on dialogue, heavy on atmosphere, chock-full of haunted faces, heavily weighted silences, anxious framing and drab, cheerless colors—and yet, all so masterfully done that it never crosses the line into inanity or self-parody.
That’s not surprising, though, given the director’s skill set and the venerable material he’s working from. Alfredson grew up in a Swedish filmmaking family, started out working for various TV stations, and eventually became (and apparently still is) the resident director for a nationally famous comedy group, with whom he made his first feature in 2004. His only other film before 2011 was the internationally acclaimed Let the Right One In (2008), a bloody, very spooky, weirdly sweet pre-teen vampire horror/romance that announced his talent for creating onscreen atmosphere as intoxicating as it is unsettling.
There are no vampires and very few children in Tinker Tailor, but it’s an ideal fit for Alfredson’s brooding style; teamed up again with the gifted cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, he delivers a master class in creating tension and excitement through restraint. The color scheme, as we’ve noted, is gloriously dreary, dominated by grays and browns, dull blues and greens, and sickly shades of red and orange. This serves to immerse us in the setting—the gloom of Britain in winter as well as the aesthetic awfulness of the 1970s—and to echo the inner life of our protagonist, George Smiley, and the rest of the characters, mostly aging spies who are all, to one degree or another, emotionally and morally worn down by the life of secrets and lies that they’ve committed to. Even a comparatively free-wheeling interlude with the younger field agent Ricki Tarr in Istanbul (the only part, if memory serves, where we see proper sunlight) is nonetheless similarly muted—even here, we’re still moving in the same devious world.
Which is not to say the movie isn’t visually stunning. Alfredson creates beautifully clean and precise images—it’s just that they’re composed to evoke anxiety and dread. On multiple occasions, we find ourselves looking from ground level at a figure in an upper-floor window, a time-honored way to induce a sense of being watched. Even more strikingly, during that Istanbul flashback, we see a whole scene of domestic conflict and abuse from Tarr’s point of view: through binoculars trained on the big windows of the hotel suite from a building across the street, which both heightens the feeling of surveillance and makes the Russian woman, Irina, all the more mysteriously alluring. Whenever possible, Alfredson shoots his actors with other objects (walls, doorways, furniture, trees) crowding them slightly in the frame, echoing their boxed-in, paranoid mindset. He favors static, carefully composed shots—appropriate, given the story’s subject matter and stately pacing—but he also makes judicious use of the ultra-subtle, ultra-slow zoom in, another textbook way to suggest encroaching danger. Indeed, all of the camera moves, even quite complex ones, are deliberately paced, never more conspicuous than they need to be. And the effect of all this is only heightened by skillful editing, which Alfredson and Dino Jonsäter provide, cutting between these various shots in a way that rarely draws attention to itself, but still squeezes maximum tension out of each scene.
This policy of restraint is consistent throughout the movie, even at overtly dramatic moments that tempt towards greater showmanship. As pensive as Tinker Tailor is compared to a Bond flick, it’s not without violence, and while Alfredson portrays it starkly, he tends to cut around it, opting to focus on the gruesome aftermath rather than the act itself and let our imagination fill in the rest. His conveys other major plot points in a similarly measured way, through precisely intoned lines of dialogue and subtle visual cues that play off of the understated style of the rest of the movie. One example comes towards the end, when we return once again to Jim Prideaux’s ill-fated mission in Budapest. The camera pushes in on a man we now suspect to be the Soviet spymaster Karla (his face still cleverly obscured by shop window lettering), and then on to the detail that finally confirms it: Smiley’s engraved lighter. The music indicates that this is significant, but so too does the way the camera moves: quickly and somewhat unsteadily, a motion that recalls ‘big reveal’ moments in older movies and also notably stands out in comparison to the subtle camerawork in the rest of the movie. Most spectacular of all, at least from a technical standpoint, is the scene where Smiley extracts a key piece of information from the Eastern Europe expert Toby Esterhase. Smiley essentially kidnaps him, a much more aggressive tactic than we’ve previously seen, and brings him to an airfield to threaten him with extradition back to the Eastern bloc. Alfredson and van Hoytema frame the two figures in a wide shot down the runway, using a seriously massive telephoto lens[i] that compresses the space to such a degree that the plane seems to be right on top of them from the moment it lands—a vivid illustration of what a terrifying prospect it represents for Toby.
Alfredson’s other secret weapon is exceptional sound design, which captures the setting in all its clackety analogue glory and also proves to be a potent dramatic tool. Sharp, sudden noises, like knocks and gunshots, ring out like thunderbolts amid the hush that usually predominates. Irina’s capture is deftly signaled by the ominous scraping of a sliding door, even before we see the Soviet agents behind it. A quick view of the captured Prideaux, bruised and forced to listen to disturbing, scream-like noises, tells us all we need to know about his interrogation by the KGB. On multiple occasions, Alfredson deploys the low, slow-building rumble of passing metro trains, cranking up the tension to an almost unbearable degree. A pop song on the radio adds a dash of humor to one scene, only to resurface later as a chilling signal to Smiley’s lieutenant, Peter Guillam, that they’re being watched.
Fittingly enough, all facets of Alfredson’s understated approach are on full display in the movie’s climactic scene, when Smiley and his motley crew spring a trap for Karla’s double agent. Tarr hijacks the Paris office at gunpoint to set the ruse in motion, and Mendel, their colleague from the Special Branch, notes the arrival of all four suspects at the ‘Circus’ (MI6) headquarters in ominous tones, but when the mole then reveals himself by rushing to alert his Soviet handler, there’s no fight, no chase, and no shootout. Instead, we’re with Smiley in the house that serves as their secret meeting place, waiting and listening. We hear the soft but unmistakable sounds of one car pulling up and footsteps entering the house, and then another. Then we get Smiley in a chair and a long, deliciously slow pan over to reveal the man he’s holding at gunpoint: Bill Haydon, his treachery finally confirmed. It’s a climax so uncommonly quiet that we might not even register it on a first viewing, but it’s wonderfully effective nonetheless, creating thrills entirely through narrative setup, sound design, and careful camerawork.
Alfredson’s skillfully restrained suspense would be fun to watch in any context. But it also happens to be perfectly suited to this classic story by the great scribe of the somber (you might say ‘anti-Bond’) school of spy fiction: John le Carré, who worked for the British intelligence services in the 1950s and 60s and has spent the decades since writing consistently excellent espionage novels, full of soulfully beleaguered characters; heartless, heavily bureaucratized agencies; and vaguely defined, morally murky conflicts. No layperson can know for sure how realistic this is, and yet, almost by default, it feels more honest than Bond-ian action and adventure; we know that super-spies aren’t real, but these subtler stories, especially when populated by memorable characters as le Carré’s are, carry an enthralling air of credibility. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, first published in 1974, is universally considered to be one of his best works, and it is indeed a masterpiece of the spy genre, with its richly imagined world of Cold War intrigue, its twisty, timeless narrative about the search for a double agent at the top of British intelligence, and the sneakily powerful emotional (and philosophical) impact that it ultimately carries.
And this movie is a prime example of smart adaptation; even before Alfredson works his stylistic magic, the screenplay, by the husband-and-wife team of Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor, has already done a lot of crucial legwork in translating the story to the screen. Which is no easy task; as dour and cynical as le Carré’s characters are, they tend to talk quite a lot, and the omniscient narrator often delves liberally into backstories and the intricacies of both international and office politics. His plotlines, meanwhile, are elaborate even by spy fiction standards (critics eagerly break out the great word ‘labyrinthine’ to describe them)—and few more so than the sprawling Tinker Tailor. O’Connor and Straughan wisely don’t attempt to include all of that, partly because it would be impossible in a feature-length movie, and partly because it’s already been done, inimitably, in a six-hour BBC miniseries from 1979, anchored by Sir Alec Guiness’s definitive performance as Smiley. Instead, they manage to streamline the plot considerably while maintaining its essential structure; apart from a couple of minor changes in setting (Prague becomes Budapest, Hong Kong becomes Istanbul), the major twists and turns of the Smiley’s hunt for the mole are pretty much faithfully replicated. And even more importantly, the writers are able to preserve, for lack of a better word, the soul of the novel: the idiosyncratic characterization and deep undercurrents of regret, longing and existential malaise. This is the main reason, I think, why the movie doesn’t play like the rushed highlight reel of a richer narrative, and why the story in general is so rewarding to revisit even after we know how it ends—it’s exciting, but also genuinely moving, grounded in recognizably human psychology.
To capture all of this in two short hours, O’Connor and Straughan craft exceptionally concise and expressive dialogue, but they’re also keenly of how much can be expressed without words. Consider the great, wordless scene where one of Mendel’s bees gets trapped in the car, and “the other characters flail and panic while Smiley calmly opens the window and lets it fly off—his approach to spy-catching in a single image.”[ii] Even the fairly lengthy opening credits contain a lot of narrative development, again without dialogue: a trip through the interior spaces of the Circus builds atmosphere, Control’s death advances the story, and the empty routines of Smiley’s life in forced retirement—including a trip to the optician, where he picks out this movie’s version of Guinness’s iconic, thick-rimmed glasses—develop character. A more complex example is Smiley’s serially unfaithful wife, Ann, a full supporting character in the book whom the screenwriters include only in fleeting moments, her face never fully revealed. Her identity as a character is lost, but her role in the plot is preserved, and it’s still clear what she represents for Smiley’s character: a symbol of his awkward, agonized relationship with the real world beyond the Circus, a key weakness for Karla to exploit, and an illusory but powerful ideal to keep fighting for. The screenplay is a model of this kind of quiet expressiveness, and with Alfredson firmly on the same page, the result is an oddly gripping sort of thriller, in which the dialogue is spare and the pacing is slow, but there’s always a lot happening—narratively, thematically, emotionally, or sometimes all three at once.
Alfredson is also blessed with a cast that’s remarkable even compared to other large, star-studded ensembles. John le Carré characters seem to be, for British actors, a bit like founding fathers or Civil Rights leaders for American actors—if one of those movies is in the works, everybody is going to be interested. Those assembled here are all seasoned veterans, able to deliver every line, even an ostensibly unremarkable one, for maximum effect. In a pivotal early exchange between Smiley and the government undersecretary Lacon, Simon McBurney ratchets up the sense of anticipation via deliciously loaded intonation of a simple phrase: “The thing is…” When the late, great John Hurt, with his magnificently craggy features and singular voice (aptly described by one journalist as “nicotine sieved through dirty, moonlit gravel”[iii]) tells Prideaux, “There’s a rotten apple, Jim; we have to find it…”, it adds tension and also hints at Control’s increasing obsession and paranoia. When Smiley takes his leave of the recently ousted analyst Connie Sachs, Kathy Burke’s poignant (offscreen) delivery of her final line (“If it’s bad, don’t come back. I want to remember you all as you were…”) does a great deal to capture the emotional stakes of the investigation and the history these characters share. It would be tedious to run through every example, but suffice it to say that all the main actors have their share of similarly choice moments. And it’s not just about line delivery; they know how to make the most of every bit of screen time, speaking or otherwise, so we get a clear (if not always especially deep) sense of who all the principal supporting characters are. Which is especially impressive when you think back on it and realize that in a movie running barely over 2 hours, most of them have only a few scenes to really work with.
The key to it all, of course, is Smiley himself, masterfully portrayed by Gary Oldman, a certifiably great actor who was nevertheless not the most obvious choice for the role; after a career of being “often asked to play kinetic, frenetic characters,” he has said, he was “thrilled to be asked to play someone still.”[iv] The manic energy that defines Oldman’s earlier work is nowhere to be seen in the owlish Smiley, a thoroughly unremarkable, even outwardly pathetic figure memorably described by le Carré as “one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth.” Such blandness is his nature, and Oldman makes it feel authentic, but he also conveys how Smiley has learned to use it to his advantage—that beneath the nondescript exterior lies a man with a penetrating intelligence and a scrupulous but potent capacity for ruthlessness, well aware of the value of being underestimated. Oldman delivers, in one critic’s words “a fascinatingly gripping performance that doesn’t so much command the screen, dominating it with shouts and displays of obvious technique, as take it over incrementally, an occupation that echoes Smiley’s steady incursion into the mole’s lair.”[v]
This dovetails perfectly with Alfredson’s restrained style, which is also about creating suspense with as little overt flair as possible; there’s always a certain intensity about Oldman’s Smiley, even when he’s technically doing very little. When he doesn’t speak at all for the first 18 minutes, it’s something of a gimmick, but we’re still learning a lot about the character: how keenly observant he is, the deference shown to him by colleagues, how carefully considered every word and action is—so that when he finally does speak, responding to Lacon’s request to look into Tarr’s theory, we’re on tenterhooks, even though all he’s saying is that he’s retired. But then Lacon mentions that Control also believed in the Soviet mole, and Oldman signals a clear shift as Smiley’s mind begins to whir, rapidly assessing his next move: Okay, this could be real, the first thing to know is how Lacon reacted…and thus his first question: “What did you say to him?” And from that moment on, he’s fully locked in, hunting for the answer in his own discreetly effective way—meticulously investigating every lead, making deft use of his colleagues and their skills, steadily accruing the only weapons that count in this world: information, and the leverage that comes with it.
The question remains, though; why does this movie stick with us? Smiley is ultimately an easy character to root for, a master of his craft and a figure of some pathos, but that alone doesn’t quite explain how this story continues to resonate so deeply. On the surface, it never goes beyond its brief as a suspenseful, unusually affecting spy thriller. And while the setting and context feel more and more like relics of the distant, dusty past with each passing year, it’s not without contemporary relevance; as Andrew O’Hehir puts it, “I don’t think John le Carré or much of anyone else laments the demise of Soviet communism, and all the spies of the Circus and the CIA and whatever the KGB now calls itself have kept right on going without it. But the question of whether Western democracy has recovered from its Cold War hangover, from its addiction to secrets and spying and the erosion of both rights and liberties, certainly remains topical.”[vi]
More importantly, however, the story works because it engages poignantly, if mostly indirectly, with facets of the human experience that most everyone can relate to on some level. It delves into questions about loyalty and identity; at the end, after Haydon is exposed as the mole, he tells Smiley that his choice wasn’t based on some rational assessment of which side is better, that it was just as much an “aesthetic” decision—and in turning against a West that has “become so very ugly,” he seems to see some reclamation of agency. Smiley is no fanatical Western ideologue, but the one and only time he raises his voice is in response to that idea, countering that in the end, Haydon is just another tool for Karla being used in service of the same ugly struggle that has brought out so much nastiness in both sides. The Second World War is referred to only briefly, but the memory of it lingers heavily over the movie, as the characters now find themselves living off the past (like Connie) or trying in vain to recapture it (like Bill and the others). As nostalgic as he may be, Smiley knows that the moral clarity of that conflict is never coming back. Now it’s all various shades of gray; both sides are equally rapacious, domineering, and ruthless in the end, so he serves the one he can call home, however flawed it may be. It’s this same sentiment that impels him to search for the mole in the first place. Lacon muses, “Damn it, George; it’s your generation, your legacy…” and Smiley still wants that to mean something—out of loyalty to the country he was born to, and even more so to the people he’s fought with.
This gets at another reason why the complex machinations of this rarefied world feel so emotionally relevant. For all the rational analysis and deductive reasoning that the central conflict entails, it’s driven just as much by interpersonal factors that we can all understand: friendship, love, ambition, rivalry, and all the other dimensions of human interconnectedness. At the end, it becomes clear that on some level, Prideaux knew Haydon was the mole all along; a visit he paid Haydon before the Budapest mission was an unspoken warning, and eventually leads to a clue that’s crucial to Smiley’s investigation. Meanwhile, the broader chess match between Smiley and Karla feels more personal than ideological, their moves heavily influenced by what they revealed to each other in a single brief meeting decades earlier.
On a similar note, the movie is also, in an elusive but profound way, about the pull of the past—how we can never really escape it, how it’s constantly influencing our present selves. The investigation takes place along a certain timeline, but as is often the case in le Carré’s stories, most intelligence gathering involves reaching back into the past—reviewing documents, questioning witnesses, revisiting memories. In the book, Smiley’s capacity for reminiscence is described as approaching an altered state of consciousness, sinking so deeply into his recollections that he nearly loses all sense of time and place—a valuable skill to have when considering which of your close associates has actually been a traitor for years. In this story, as in the real world, finding the answer isn’t just about gathering evidence; it’s also about confronting history, making a full accounting of actions taken, secrets kept, and lies told. And as such, I think Smiley’s hunt for the mole is also about the lies we tell ourselves—the way we let emotion shape memory, rationalizing and papering over the parts we don’t want to know or can’t face, in service of what we want the truth to be. Along with the machinations of Karla and his own erstwhile colleagues, this is what Smiley overcomes to find the truth, to see his world as it truly is—and it makes him, in his own watchful way, heroic, because we know from our own lives what a fraught prospect that is.
Amid all the subtle and overt changes necessary to compress that story into two hours, Alfredson, Oldman, and everyone else involved manage to preserve that crucial element air of emotional honesty, making Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a top-notch adaptation and a masterwork of paranoid spy cinema. ◊
© Harrison Swan, 2020
[i] 2000 mm, to be exact! (For reference, most shots in most movies are filmed on lenses ranging from 24 mm to 100 mm.) A quick explainer, if you’re interested: https://www.redsharknews.com/production/item/3195-what-a-2000mm-lens-can-do-for-you