Double Agents: Cold War Revisited in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

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Gary Oldman in his Oscar-nominated performance as George Smiley

Spy thrillers have long fascinated the masses. Ever since the two World Wars, people have shown great interest in intelligence and counterintelligence, which only increased during the Cold War with its two adversarial camps. The most famous of the literary and cinematic secret agents is James Bond, the super-spy by English author Ian Fleming. He has become a global phenomenon in the last six decades, first as the main character of a book series in the 1950s, then in (so far) 22 big-screen adventures for the last half of a century.

Fleming’s 007 stories are essentially unrealistic wish-fulfillment. They offer short-time escapism from the daily treadmill and allow their writer as well as the audience to live out the dream existence they could never lead in reality. There is, however, another branch of spy thrillers that is completely different from Fleming’s approach, as propagated by his peers, the novelists Len Deighton and John Le Carré.

One of Le Carré’s more famous books is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, originally published in 1974 and already adapted for television in a 1979 BBC mini-series starring Sir Alec Guinness. Now the material has been turned into a film again, as a British-French-German co-production financed by Studio Canal, directed by Tomas Alfredsson of Let The Right One In fame, and starring such luminaries as Gary Oldman, John Hurt, and Colin Firth, as well as international actors like Konstantin Khabensky, the star of Night Watch, in supporting roles.

The story is a ‘whodunnit,’ but one of a rather complex nature. Control (John Hurt), the head of British Intelligence, steps down after an operation in Hungary in the early 1970s ends in a disaster. The maneuver was an attempt by Control to figure out which one of four senior officers in the service was a Russian agent. George Smiley (Gary Oldman), his lieutenant, has to resign together with his former boss.

Later, however, he is asked back by the government to investigate a story told by a rogue agent, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), about a mole in the service. Smiley believes the tale because of the failure in Hungary and the ongoing success of Operation Witchcraft, apparently a source of significant information on the Soviets. He begins to look for the mole. Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberland) helps him to obtain information that eventually leads to Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), the innermost agent of the Hungary disaster.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy moves slowly. This is not your fast-paced, action-laden movie in the vein of the Jason Bourne franchise and the more recent James Bond adventures. There are no car chases or giant explosions. Rather, it is a fairly intricate chess piece and almost an intimate play that needs quite a bit of effort on the part of the viewers. Some may find it dull and boring, because it is so different from the kinetic thrillers modern audiences are used to.

There is little glamour to the agents other than the annual parties the service throws for them. Yet these bland characters are probably closer to the truth than the other film spies we know and love. After all, Le Carré himself worked in intelligence. He was an agent officially listed as a secretary in the British Embassy at Bonn and a political consul in Hamburg. So it is safe to assume that he knows a thing or two about life in the secret service – and the rather arduous and boring tasks these men really have to deal with.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not for everybody. It is a film for those viewers who like to rack their brains. The movie contains many characters that seem to be involved in different subplots but are all connected in one way or other. All those who closely pay attention to what happens on the screen might be entitled to an ‘aha effect,’ and everyone else will probably be turned off after the five to ten minutes already. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a fine thriller with commendable performances and a good screenplay culled from Le Carré’s novel, yet it is certainly not perfect. It has some lengths that probably might have ironed out during the editing, but overall, it is a refreshingly different take on the spy genre.