Dry games

Intriguing British spy story is gets faithful if muddled treatment

Our guy Smiley and his ’70s band of spies.

Our guy Smiley and his ’70s band of spies.

Starring Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Mark Strong and John Hurt. Directed by Tomas Alfredson. Cinemark 14. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

Last Saturday, I came out of a late afternoon show of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy feeling a little underwhelmed. The new film version of the much-admired John le Carré novel exercises a steady, low-key fascination, but there’s also something a little turgid and muddled about it.

Several esteemed critics rate it among the best films of the year just past, and I’m sure that at least some of them would argue that the turgid, underwhelming muddle of Cold War intrigue is precisely the point. OK, point taken, but I still have the sense that this two-hour condensation of the story (that took five-plus hours to tell in the 1979 BBC miniseries version) at times merely inflicts that muddle on the viewing audience.

Nevertheless, the film does have a lot going for it: a very good cast, a powerfully atmospheric sense of sociopolitical history, a dour and ironic slant on the practical business of espionage. It’s a spy movie with a very wide streak of absurdist chamber drama running through it.

On the face of it, the plot is simple enough—the British spy agency MI-6 (or “the circus,” as its called by le Carré) may have a Russian mole in a sensitive position, and it’s up to le Carré’s dour anti-hero George Smiley (played here by an uncommonly taciturn Gary Oldman) to sort out the matter. But there’s nothing simple about the business of spies spying on each other, especially with the convoluted interplay and potential of double agents wielding counter intelligence and carefully disguised disinformation.

As directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) from a screenplay adaptation by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, Tinker drifts along as a paradoxical stream of fragments. The action, as such, is both precisely observed and relentlessly ambiguous. For the audience, it is a low-pressure muddle made endurable chiefly by whatever appreciation we can muster for the high-pressure muddle through which Smiley so steadfastly slogs.

Suspense in this case is partly a kind of narrative constipation—a situation a little too perfectly suited to the congested social relations that prevail within the M-I6 “circus.” The cruel, numbing dynamics of Cold War politics and the suffocating deceptions of post-World War II society are both medium and message in much of this picture.

A gray and brown palette and a series of queasily claustrophobic spaces predominate. As a consequence, the performances of a first-rate cast consist mainly of a poker-faced persistence against the murky tide of events, large or small. Moments of emotion arrive mostly via the smallest of signifiers—a tic, a twinge, an ambivalent shrug, a nonreaction that could imply stress, indifference, or both.

Colin Firth, John Hurt, Ciarán Hinds and Toby Jones all have pertinent but minimally rewarding roles in this. The best supporting parts belong to Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Kathy Burke and Tom Hardy—and each of them leaves a moderately memorable imprint on the film.