“There is a mole at the top of the circus…”
THESE WORDS open up a well made and tense thriller, directed by Tomas Alfredson.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, now remade as a historical drama piece, speaks of a different time but captures well the tensions of the spy world in the mid-1970s. Through a series of European missions that go terribly wrong, it becomes apparent that there is a Soviet mole placed in the inner circle of the British secret service, referred to as the Circus after its headquarters at Cambridge Circus.
Based on the experience of the Cambridge spy ring around Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby and Guy Burgess, British spies who were double agents for Moscow, the film is analogous to a game of chess between the gentlemen spies of the Cold War.
Gary Oldman, one of the most versatile actors in cinema today, plays the world-weary figure of George Smiley very well. Smiley was the star of several of le Carré’s spy novels, who himself had a career in MI6. Oldman is understated, with a sense that he has seen and done too much – his family life is a mess, in fact his dedication to the British establishment is the only thing he has left.
The one flaw in the film which felt important comes at the conclusion. The movie spends so long chasing the double agent it leaves no time for any sort of explanation for why they did it, what motivated them to betray Queen and country. In the novel the double agent was recruited in the 1930s and came to hate the dominance of the United States after the Suez Canal incident in 1956, spying for the Russians as a way of undermining growing US hegemony. This is believable, but leaves the double agent merely as a disgruntled British nationalist in an opportunistic relationship with the Soviet Union, not out of any ideological commitment to socialism or against capitalism. In the film the reason is just that “the west has declined and I had to pick a side.”
In short the film is good on spy-fuelled tension but short on the necessary psychological drive for the character, a usual complaint when a novel is stripped bare to fit a two-hour movie.