The new version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—John le Carré’s 1974 novel made into an indelible 1979 miniseries with Alec Guinness—isn’t really a piece of storytelling. It’s more of an art installation, a series of beautifully conceived and executed pictures designed to convey the mood of le Carré’s novel. Bleak and dour and chilling, as strikingly monochromatic as any movie made in color has ever been, Tomas Alfredson’s film is a stunning achievement in cinematography and art direction. Every frame is perfectly composed. Every sequence is beautifully lit. The visual and thematic control Alfredson exercises here marks him as a master of a kind.
But not of a storytelling kind.
Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy evokes le Carré’s convoluted plot without actually doing anything to unfold it. Instead of characters, it presents faces. It moves those faces around like chess pieces in a match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer, when the gap between moves might last three hours.
Everybody in Tinker, Tailor talks and moves as though they are submerged in invisible Jell-O—that is, when they move or talk at all. Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, the pivotal character essayed by Alec Guinness, as though his blood had been replaced with embalming fluid; when he speaks, Oldman (who has been the recipient of the most baffling praise for an astoundingly dull performance in my memory) literally sounds like Guinness on a 45-rpm record slowed down to 33.
I’ve never seen a movie that takes so little interest in helping its viewers learn the names of the people we’re watching, their relations to each other, or the specifics of what they do. Over the course of its two-hour running time you are supposed to figure out the rules of the chess game yourself, and the outcome as well.
Only it’s a cheat. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is an adaptation of a novel millions have read and a shortened version of a landmark television drama tens of millions of people have seen. If I hadn’t read it (30 years ago) and seen it (twice, the last time 25 years ago), the goings-on would have been entirely incomprehensible. As it was, with my memory of the plot and the characters dimmed by time, I could barely make it out.
This Tinker, Tailor only works as a narrative, if it works at all, because Alfredson and his screenwriters, Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, rely on the fact that they are using familiar characters who are playing out a familiar story. Cheekily, the creative team seems to assume that a viewer’s likely familiarity with the characters and the story excuses them from the responsibility for providing even elementary storytelling detail—because doing so might take away from their obsession with the artistically elliptical.
Consider “Karla.” For the first hour, the characters—all of them senior officials in British intelligence in the early 1970s—mention Karla. They invoke Karla. They mumble about Karla. If you don’t know that Karla is the name of the Soviet spymaster with whom British intelligence is jousting—and you would have no way of knowing that unless you brought that knowledge with you to the theater—you might think Karla is a spicy waitress at the local pub. Eventually, I suppose, you would suss it out, but why make this a piece of the puzzle?
The denial of information to a reader or a viewer is key to any mystery or spy plot, but what we’re denied here by Alfredson’s style is information that was clear on every page of le Carré’s novel. For example, a key character is named Alleline. I knew who he was in the novel because it would say “Alleline said” or “Alleline glowered.” But for the first hour of the movie I had no idea which of the five main players was playing Alleline. It could have been the big swarthy guy or the little Truman Capote-looking guy. I don’t mind not knowing if Alleline is a good guy or a bad guy, a Soviet double agent or a dupe. But why shouldn’t I know which one he was?
Alfredson understands that what made le Carré’s work memorable was the gloomy, mordant, overpoweringly cynical atmosphere—the result of le Carré’s deeply offensive assertion that there was no difference between being a spy working for the West against communism and being a spy working for the Communists. That was an enormously provocative assertion—provoking praise from many people who now pretend they were part of the anti-Communist fight all along and provoking outrage from those who knew the truth and were willing to fight for that truth. And the provocative nature of le Carré’s vision charged his novels and the films and television shows made from them with a certain urgency.