Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and I didn't get off to the best of starts on Sunday evening, and if we're being honest about it I have to assign some of the blame to myself. For one, I probably should have been more prepared. Should I have read the John le Carré novel beforehand? Let's just say the context would have been helpful. Should I have been familiar with the 1979 BBC series of the same name, starring none other than Alec Guinness? I worry it would have skewed my expectations, but comparison value would have provided some needed assistance.
Should I have known something—anything, really—about the film prior to entering the theater? I say this for very few movies, but in this case it's a definite yes.
For a newbie like me entering le Carré's meticulous world of 1970s British intelligence operatives, the learning curve is steep. I spent the first 45 minutes trying with varying degrees of success to differentiate the dozen or so main characters, almost all of whom are middle-aged white British guys and all of whom are introduced in rapid succession.
The accents don't help, especially at the Wilma, where muffled speakers have been known to kill entire sentences.
That's not to say there isn't a satisfying payoff for those willing to pay close attention for 127 minutes, but be prepared to wake up the next morning wishing you could go back and watch those first four or five scenes again. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is like a nuanced version of Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol in slow motion and without the explosions. Oddly, both movies open with failed secret operations in Budapest that set the tone for the rest of the film.
In Tinker Tailor, a man known only as Control (John Hurt) is the head of Circus—the highest echelon of the fictional British Secret Intelligence Service—and he has dispatched an agent to Hungary to root out a Russian mole who is believed to be working at the top levels of the British agency. Things go badly, and Control soon finds himself out of a job, along with his top deputy George Smiley (Gary Oldman).
But the mole has not gone away, and even in unemployment Smiley may be the only trustworthy intelligence officer capable of tracking down the traitor. Oldman is wonderful as an introverted but sly analyst, a man as calm under pressure as James Bond but without any of Bond's charm. His career has destroyed his marriage, but Smiley is so hard to read that we're never really sure how much this bothers him. The film takes longer to get going than it should, in large part because Smiley is essentially mute for the first 20 minutes.
After Control dies, Smiley is approached by top government officials to investigate secretly his former employer and figure out once and for all which of four top officials—known by their code names Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and Spy—is feeding information to the Soviets.
Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) is one of those four suspects, and he's been having an affair with Smiley's wife. There is a mischievous charm in the way Firth plays up the "is he or isn't he?" angle, especially once he realizes he is being investigated by his former colleague.
There's also a young agent (Tom Hardy) who knows—or claims to know—the identity of the mole, thanks to an affair with the wife of a Russian diplomat. This information makes him a wanted man within the Circus, and not because they want to give him a medal. Smiley becomes something of a father figure for the paranoid young field operative, who must carefully decide with whom he shares his valuable information.
As Smiley's small team of investigators closes in on the suspect, the suspense builds accordingly, but with so many characters and so many possible motives, the tension eventually gets tangled in a web that is hard to unravel, at least for novices. If you haven't been paying extra close attention when Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy reaches its cryptically edited climax, your first reaction is going to be "Wait, which guy is that again?" It's still quite entertaining. My heart was pounding as Smiley zeroed in on the prime suspect—but your level of cinematic fulfillment will correlate directly with how well you followed the plot. I give myself a C in this regard.
This is where a CliffsNotes-level of familiarity with the book would have helped. It's a film that will improve with a second viewing. But that also means you have to get through it the first time.
Tinker Tailor Solider Spy continues at the Wilma.