Tonight, Tomas Alfredson's film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. An adaptation of the 1974 John le Carré novel of the same name, there was also a previous BBC TV miniseries of the story starring Alec Guinness. So this story has some miles on it. Alfredson, a Swede, is scarcely known in this country, having previously directed a 2008 vampire film called Let The Right One In (I recall hearing someone on NPR sing its praises). Beyond that I'd not heard of him. Le Carré is of course famous for a series of Cold War espionage novels. In his Wikipedia profile, le Carré's writing style and plotting are contrasted with Ian Fleming's James Bond novels from the mid '50s:
The le Carré Cold War features unheroic political functionaries aware of the moral ambiguity of their work, and engaged in psychological more than physical drama. They experience little of the violence typically encountered in action thrillers, and have very little recourse to gadgets. Much of the conflict they are involved in is internal, rather than external and visible.
Unlike the moral certainty of Fleming's British Secret Service adventures, le Carré's Circus spy stories are morally complex, and inform the reader of the fallibility of Western democracy and of the secret services protecting it, often implying the possibility of East-West moral equivalence.
This is a better summary than I could manage, not least because I've read none of his novels. But also because the film version has its hands full trying to keep us in the loop (me, anyway). There are so many names and so many faces, all of them mixed up in plots involving Russia and Czechoslovakia, people representing different and competing governmental agencies--or different clearance levels within an agency, people conspiring with Americans, and nobody seeming to be quite who they claim. With no one apart from the main character figuring very prominently in the story, I had only a vague, general sense of who anyone really was and of what was going on--yet to come back and read the plot summary I find I got most of it. I certainly applaud the film's refusal to resort to easy action sequences to keep us engaged, but the flip side of that coin is that we are left guessing for much of the film as to what the hell is really going on. In this sense, a seven-part miniseries seems very much apropos (I'm reminded of David Lynch's attempt to make Frank Herbert's sci-fi epic Dune into a film. Lynch's film was incomprehensible, while the later mini-series of that book at least had a fighting chance of being followed by anyone not already familiar with the novel.)
George Smiley (played by Gary Oldman) is an intelligence analyst in the highest tier of British Intelligence, a group called "The Circus." Smiley and his boss, "Control" (John Hurt), dispatch one of the Circus's agents to Czechoslovakia to meet with a military man who has information for sale. The information apparently relates to a Soviet spy working inside the Circus, but somehow the meeting goes badly and the agent is shot, causing an international incident. The debacle cause Smiley and Control to be forced out of the Circus and into retirement, shortly after which Control dies. It is then left to Smiley to figure out who the mole is.
I can't really comment much on the character of George Smiley as envisioned by le Carré, but in general the emphasis on internal conflict and moral ambiguity and tension over action gets my strong support. The George Smiley of the film is a real departure for Gary Oldman. Not only because Oldman, an American, is playing a Brit, but because his Smiley is utterly taciturn and stoical, adjectives that do not leap readily to mind when surveying Gary Oldman's previous work. [Epic research fail! Oldman is indeed a Brit, though that's news to me! H/T to dbackdad.] Indeed, Smiley is in several scenes before he speaks a word or indeed even moves a facial muscle. But Oldman is utterly convincing in the role, and I'm surprised to find that the enigma of George Smiley draws one in; I might have expected such an inscrutable character to leave me unengaged. But there's a touch of detective in him, and some of the plot details--a wife who left him after having an affair with one of Smiley's coworkers, for example--hint at something more than what we see. And it's enough, maybe even to get me to see what le Carré had in mind.
The rest of the cast is excellent, though nobody gets much screen time: Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones (it is, I realize as I type this, a very male-centered story). The film does an additional public service in letting us revisit the foibles of our past: the '70s were a great period for Cold War spy stories but, it must be said, a bad time for clothes and hairstyles. Members of MI-6 may not necessarily dress as if for a Blaxploitation flick, but there's just no getting away from the stylistic dark alley we were plunging down at the time.
I'm left feeling intrigued by the story and the manner in which it was told, but in truth I'm more inclined to watch the 1979 miniseries or read the book than to see this film again. I might have enjoyed it immensely if I knew the story, but that's not a very strong endorsement for this endeavor.