The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Written by Rick Wallace.

Photo from the article There is something of a paradox at work in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, whereby we are seemingly asked to care for characters that are unable to care for one another. The suspicions that bounce around the meeting rooms of The Circus, and have already led to the dismissal of Control (John Hurt) and his acolytes, including George Smiley (Gary Oldman), is just one embodiment of this paranoia. Amidst this scenario, Smiley seems to stand as a lone point of identification.

We understand that Smiley has personal and professional principles and that his allegiance to his work takes precedence. Nevertheless, we feel that there is an emotional undercurrent to his character, almost visible for example when we see him standing in the lonely darkness of his empty home after we have become aware that his wife has left him. Smiley is a melancholic character, but attempts to hide this through a devotion to his work. For Smiley, it is professional relationships that define him as an individual, and this is most evident in the sequence in which he recounts his encounter with Karla, the man responsible for placing the Soviet mole within British Intelligence. Addressing an empty seat - which the camera, and therefore the audience, are soon to occupy - Smiley recalls what has clearly become an intensely emotional and affecting experience. Staring directly into the lens, the process of such vivid memory is etched across his face, in a tour de force performance from Gary Oldman, where every involuntary facial movement is amplified by the proximity of the camera and the size of the image. It is clear that he is reliving what he believes to be the most important moment of his life. Scenes such as this cement our engagement with Smiley over and above any of the other characters, into whose past experiences and personalities we are denied any such insights.


This could be seen as a weakness in a film that revolves around a search for a mole within a small group of characters. In hindsight, it seems impossible that the mole could be anybody other than Bill Haydon (Colin Firth). Apart from Smiley, he’s the only member of The Circus’ inner circle who is given any kind of personal background. We know he had an affair with Smiley’s wife, and so the two already have a complicated relationship. Haydon’s close friendship with Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) is also given a great deal of emphasis, and since Prideaux’s kidnap by Karla opens the film, presumably having been betrayed by one of his own, it seems that the revelation of the mole would be most dramatic if it is revealed to be Haydon: the affair was to throw Smiley off the scent; the betrayal of Prideaux creates a bitterly sad dramatic resolution; it’s Colin Firth. None of the other suspects receive anything like this kind of personal treatment, and so, in purely dramatic terms, it is increasingly unlikely that the mole could be anybody else.


Yet it seems as if a kind of sleight-of-hand has been performed, for whilst the narrative appears to be about uncovering the mole, the way in which we are encouraged to engage with the characters at a personal level tells a different story. Although Haydon’s guilt is not entirely obvious when watching the film, the flatness of the reveal suggests either that we are intended to have been suspecting it all along, or that in fact it doesn’t really matter who the mole is. The mere fact that it is one of the main men is enough of a drama. Behind this, however, is a much more nuanced and emotional narrative strand, which focuses on the junior members of The Circus, Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) and Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Both up-and-comers, their different personalities highlight the various ways in which being a member of British Intelligence can take its toll at a personal level. Tarr is perceived to be a loose-cannon, and to have become a liability because of his association with a Soviet agent, Irena (Svetlana Khodchenkova), who he rescues from her abusive husband. Tarr’s comparative lack of cold detachment - his inability to separate his work from his principles - leads not just to professional difficulties but to a further betrayal, this time by Smiley himself. In order to keep him on-side, Smiley promises to do everything he can to extradite Irena, even though he knows her to have already been murdered by Karla. Tarr, then, is incapable of being the operative that the Service demands, and instead unwittingly becomes Smiley’s tool, whose coolness at this point highlights just how low one must sink in order to find success in this professional world.


This is a goal that Peter Guillam, in contrast to Tarr, is well on his way to achieving. In a heart-breaking sequence he chooses his career over his personal relationship - much as Smiley does when he becomes aware of Haydon’s affair with his wife - telling his gay partner to leave in order to preserve his future with the Circus. Unlike Tarr, Guillam is well aware that he is being used by Smiley to get to the heart of the mole situation. In many ways Guillam’s narrative is the far more distressing because we can see what lies in his future: he will become one of the characterless, manipulative and paranoid men seated around the Circus conference table, about whom we as viewers can care very little because of the way they treat one another. Perhaps it is because these men all share a sense of this loss (we certainly know this to be the case with Smiley) that they all look so wretched. Although Tarr has lost the woman he loves and had his career with the Service all but destroyed, his individuality has won out and he is free to be himself. Guillam, on the other hand, is on the path to being stripped of his humanity, and it is in emphasising this sense of creeping personal coldness where the film is most effective. One gets the sense that not only do these people not like each other, but they don’t like themselves all that much either. It is for this reason that the lack of fanfare when the mole is uncovered is not necessarily a dramatic flaw in the film. On the contrary, it affectively conveys just how tragic these men’s lives are: the sense of personal and professional betrayal embodied in Haydon’s actions seems not only to not be a surprise, but appears actually to be routine.

This Alternate Take was published on November 12, 2011.

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