We’re going on a Mole Hunt: Le Carré’s finest book is boiled down into an atmospheric and masterful spy thriller
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Cast: Gary Oldman (George Smiley), Colin Firth (Bill Haydon), Tom Hardy (Ricki Tarr), Mark Strong (Jim Prideaux), Ciaran Hinds (Roy Bland), Benedict Cumberbatch (Peter Guillam), David Dencik (Toby Esterhase), Toby Jones (Percy Alleline), John Hurt (Control), Kathy Burke (Connie Sachs), Roger Lloyd-Pack (Mendel), Svetlana Khodchenkove (Irina), Konstantin Khabensky (Polyakov)
Anyone taking on this, Le Carré’s finest novel faced a tough challenge. After all, arguably the definitive version already exists: the masterful, slow-burn, 1979 TV adaptation (one of my favourite films ever) starring an Alec Guinness so perfect as the rotund, inscrutable spy-master George Smiley that Le Carré stated he could no longer write the character without thinking of him. I’ve long been nuts for Tinker, Tailor: I rushed to the cinema to see this with an equally keen-friend about five days before my wedding (on my wife-to-be’s birthday!) because I was looking forward to it so much. (Despite this the wedding went ahead). It can’t match that Guinness version – but it runs it close.
It’s the height of the Cold War, and the respected head of the British Intelligence Services (‘the Circus’) Control (John Hurt) is forced out, along with his deputy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) after a rogue mission in Hungary goes disastrously wrong. Over a year later, Smiley is secretly recalled to lead a mole hunt. Someone at the top of the service is a Russian agent – but who? New head Percy Alleline (Toby Jones)? Or one of the deputies – Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) or Toby Esterhase (David Dencik)?
The first inspiration here is the screenplay. When I heard the film was two hours long I was stunned: the TV series unfolded over nearly seven hours! But the script, by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor (who tragically died of cancer during it’s making) is a masterpiece. It brilliantly and skilfully compresses and restructures the novel, boiling down scenes to their core. But yet, it never feels rushed. The script creates composite scenes – most brilliantly a flashback to a Circus Christmas party – which allows a vast range of sub-plots and characters to simultaneously unfold.
Alongside this, the film is superbly, atmospherically directed by Tomas Alfredson. Alfredson brings a sharp, outsider’s view to this public-school nightmare turned espionage hub. These are posh boys, running an exclusive club, which plays by punishing rules. Everyone constantly spies one everyone else and there is no moment of privacy. Alfredsen brilliantly explores the social and emotional impact of spying, trapped within a grim and oppressive 70s mileu of dirt, beige, fear and loneliness.
The film is brilliantly designed, capturing a vast array of 70s designs and shades. The Circus is an industrial office – with its centre piece an orange lined, sound-proof room. Streets are lined with political graffiti – at one point we see “The Future is Female” a nifty comment on the all-male institution we are watching. Communist Hungary is a post-industrial slum, hotel rooms crowded with papers, cigarette smoke and overflowing ash trays.
At the centre is Gary Oldman, simply brilliant as Smiley. Controlled, measured and deploying only as much energy is needed, Smiley adds a hint of Guinness to his voice and always seems in control. But this lugubrious Smiley bubbles with tension, driven by twin demons. The first is Karla, the Russian spy-master Smiley let slip through his fingers years ago, the subject of a maudlin late-night recollection to his assistant Guillam. Even more important is his wife Ann, the betrayer Smiley still loves to distraction, a half-sight of her enough to make him stumble and lose breath. We never see either of these clearly in the film, reflecting their status as the only characters Smiley never understands and can’t make cool, calm, passion-free decisions about.
Cold-eyed reason guides everything else he does. Oldman’s Smiley may be grandfatherly, softly-spoken and controlled, but he’s as ruthless (if not more so) than everyone else. Smiley is precise and patient. There is a beautiful character establishing moment: Smiley, Mendel and Guillam are in a car bothered by a wasp. Guillam and Mendel flap with futile energy: Smiley waits and then lowers the window slightly at the perfect moment to let the wasp fly out. It captures in microcosm Smiley’s investigation. But he’s not afraid to use force: quietly threatening Dencik’s trembling Esterhase with deportation (not even flinching as a plane lands behind him), ruthlessly mining witnesses for evidence and verbally lashing out bitterly at the mole.
Alfredson’s film zeroes in on much of the emotional impact on spying. Smiley is a man slightly lost in the world outside of spying: retired, he seems adrift walking the streets, swims alone, sits at home in his suit. He’s so deactivated he doesn’t even speak for the first 18 minutes of the film, when he is recalled to life. Smiley has suppressed his emotions so completely only the shadow of his wife can move him. His home is a strange shrine, so much so he even keeps the gifts her lover gives her.
Each of the characters suffers under their burdens, and the demands on them for secrecy and isolation. Mark Strong’s Jim Prideaux buries himself in guilt in a caravan and forms a friendship with a young boy he later realises he is crafting into the same secretive man he is. Guillam is quietly ordered by Smiley to end his relationship with his boyfriend and acquiesces in private tears. Connie Sachs lives in retirement like a mad woman in an attic, cradling her memories. Control dies alone in a hospital bed. Later the Mole clings to having “made his mark” to supress his guilt, while a man whose career is ruined walks into oblivion blank faced not even noticing the rain around him.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is full of moments like this, the high-price of dogged, dedicated work like spying. Alfredson’s coolly, beautifully shot film (by Hoyte van Hoytema) with its lyrical score by Alfredo Iglesias is a masterpiece of tone. This is a dark, dangerous world and we are constantly reminded of it, in between the muttered meetings in board rooms and dark corriders. Tom Hardy’s (wonderful) Ricki Tarr and Mark Strong’s deeply emotional Prideaux are spies-on-the-ground, face-to-face with dangers. Theirs is a world of brutal throat-cuts, eviscerations in a bath and sudden executions. The decisions played out in rooms like that orange-lined sound-proof office with its methodical, intricate ship’s clock, lead to death and violence.
The film is stuffed with beautifully composed shots and brilliantly edited (Dino Jonsäter’s cuts frequently carry us over brilliantly over transitions and segues that streamline the narrative perfectly). Despite cutting back and forth over multiple timelines, it’s always clear when we are (an ingenious device sees Smiley change his glasses in retirement, instantly grounding us in the timeline based on the pair he is wearing). The Christmas party scene – exactly the sort of bizarre public-school irreverent piss-up (where spies who fight night and day to destroy the USSR raucously sing communist songs with a Lenin-dressed Santa) is a superb distillation of character and plot beats and becomes, in many ways the emotional pivot of the movie. It’s a very inventive addition.
The film assembles a superb cast. Oldman, of course, leads from the front but there is not a weak turn in the cast. Hardy is gritty, bitter and jumped-up, Cumberbatch holding his tension down under professionalism, Strong drips quiet grief, Firth swaggers with superb, assured insouciance, Hurt is the book’s arch-spy-master come to life, Jones is full of preening pride, Burke lost in memories. If I’d like the film to be longer for any reason, it would be to see more of these actors.
Full of moody, seventies beauty and creeping paranoia, it’s also crammed with beautifully judged lines and incidental moments from the book. Alfredson’s atmospheric film has a profound emotional understanding of the cost of this life of isolation and paranoia. It took a couple of viewings, but this emerges from the shadow of my favourite TV series.