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

January 06, 2012|By Andy Klein

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.

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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?

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