Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) is the first novel in the “Karla” series by John le Carré, featuring milquetoasty, middle-aged British intelligence officer protagonist George Smiley.
Smiley is recalled from retirement to help hunt down and identify a Soviet mole somewhere in the British Secret Service (M-16) loosely modeled after Kim Philby. John Le Carre’, real name David Cornwell) was an intelligence officer for MI-16 during Philby era, and it’s said that Philby betrayed his identity to the Russians in 1964, resulting in Le Carre’s forced retirement from the service. Philby defected to the Soviet Union in 1964 and died there in 1988. The Philby story is exceptionally interesting in itself.
In fact, it’s reliably thought that “Karla” is modeled after KGB Gen. Rem Krassilnikov, an undercover agent well known to the CIA who died in Moscow in 2003.
The novel is dense and Le Carre’s prose is hard to follow for most readers. In 1982, the author’s vision was clarified for millions of viewers in the TV Miniseries “Smiley’s People”, considered by most Le Carre enthusiasts to be the definitive work. So much so that Alec Guinness would be about as irreplaceable as Freddie Mercury.
That said, underrated veteran actor Gary Oldman brings a serviceable but rather laconic interpretation of the taciturn and meticulous Smiley, not unlike a more mature Ryan Gosling. But he faces an uphill credibility battle as the specter of the inimitable Guinness colors every scene. Heavyweights Colin Firth and John Hurt are excellent in creating the interconnecting intricacy of “the Circus”.
Much like Le Carre’s novel, the story line is murky and sometimes incomprehensible. The film may be perceived as a snooze fest by many accustomed to the 007 generation. In fact, the defense of the free world during the cold war was really pretty much accomplished in musty rooms full of paper by old men in reading glasses. The few violent scenes are very dispassionately and cold bloodedly functional.
I think it’s a noble effort with big name actors doing their best rather with obtuse subject matter. Much of the story is not of particular interest to most audiences and does not render a significantly fresh look at the author’s original vision. The appeal is not so much the story but the texturing of the character interpretations the actors do consummately well. The viewer might want to go into it with a bit of a knowledge base by reading the book (or the Cliff’s Notes) before seeing the film.
Best scene: Smiley describing his attempt at turning Karla to the West.
Worst scene: None
I give it four of five horn-rimmed spectacles.