Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times | Terms of Service | Privacy Policy
Life and Arts

Film review: John le Carre’s ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ is hard to follow

Many people consider the 1979 miniseries made from John le Carre’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” to be the best adaptation of his work. Alec Guinness’ George Smiley in that version (and later reprised in a second miniseries) has been remembered most fondly of all the actors (including Rupert Davies, James Mason and Denholm Elliott) who have taken on the character. So why is it being remade now for the big screen?

Besides the possible commercial reasons, there are also the kind of production values that a bigger budget can afford. And there may be a virtue in director Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”) having to tell le Carre’s intricate story in two hours rather than six or seven. In truth, it would probably require even longer than that to make all the reversals and details of le Carre’s typically convoluted plot clear as we go along.

The middle-aged Smiley (Gary Oldman in this version) is a recurring character who appears at the center of several le Carre books and the periphery of others. He’s near the top level of Britain’s MI6 (military intelligence); that is, he’s a spy, though not a James Bond spy. In fact, rather the opposite — he doesn’t flirt with every (or any) woman he meets; he uses no science fiction gewgaws; and he rarely wisecracks. He is so utterly ordinary that he can pass through a crowd without anyone remembering him.

At the film’s beginning, Smiley and Control (John Hurt), his immediate superior, are forced out of the service after a Budapest mission goes terribly wrong. That may, however, just be the pretext; what’s really going down is a power grab by one or more of their closest colleagues (played by Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Ciarin Hinds and David Dencik). But Smiley is secretly brought back from retirement for the most sensitive sort of work — ferreting out a Soviet mole, who is probably one of those four.

Complications ensue. Man, do they ensue! Is there really a double agent within the group? Or could he be a triple agent, working for our side while pretending to be working for the Soviets as someone pretending to be working for us?

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is so complicated that, at the end, I still wasn’t clear on who did what to whom. The plot is only one source of the confusion: There is also Alfredson’s fondness for leaping around in time; the characters being referred to randomly by first, last or code names; and the fact that Smiley, our identification figure, is, by design, a very internalized guy.

This confusion may be deliberate: I’m a stickler for plot logic, but Alfredson doesn’t seem to be focused on that. He’s more concerned with character and mood. On the basis of this and “Let the Right One In,” a distinctive visual style emerges. Backgrounds are often kept out of focus. At times, you get the sense that Smiley is moving normally through a slow-motion world. The interiors are beautifully lit, almost suggesting a dream world. Everything seems designed to keep us, like Smiley, in the dark.

Oldman is a notorious scenery-chewer — think “The Fifth Element,” “The Professional” and “True Romance” for a start — but here, as in the Batman series, he’s remarkably restrained. We have to read him primarily through subtle shifts of expression.

It’s baffling that the film has been rated “R for violence, some sexuality/nudity and language.” There is no nudity to speak of; the language is mild; and nearly all the action stuff occurs off screen or at a great distance. Except for one short scene near the beginning, the action is mostly cerebral. There are one or two gory closeups, but even those are mild stuff compared to most PG-13 films.

ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).