Dir. Tomas Alfredson. U.S.A. 2011.
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Until now, I thought a mole was something like a small permanent mark on the skin, or a spicy Mexican sauce (molé), but I discovered in Tomas Alfredson's spy thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that a mole is also an individual who has infiltrated a high-level organization in order to provide its highly guarded secrets to the opposition/enemy/other side. Murky, enigmatic, and often confusing (if you haven't read the book or seen the TV series), the film is supported by an outstanding ensemble cast that includes Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch, and manages to be worth figuring out, but the ride is not always illuminating. 

Based on the 1974 novel by John le Carré and the 1979 television series that starred Alec Guinness, the current adaptation by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan has less time than the others to capture the essence of the byzantine narrative yet, in the end, it probably doesn't matter because the film is more about mood and character than plot. Set in Britain in the 1970s at the height of the Cold War with the War in Vietnam still in process, the head of British Intelligence named Control (John Hurt) as well as senior agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) are forced to resign after a botched operation in Budapest, Hungary (under Soviet control at the time). 

In the operation, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) tries to track down a rumor that the “Circus” has been infiltrated by a Russian agent, believed to be one of four key figures in the agency. His job was to bring in a Russian general who allegedly wanted to defect and could provide the name of the infiltrator but Prideaux was gunned down and there was no defection. It seems apparent that Prideaux has been killed but later, when we see him teaching a class at a private boys' school, we are shown in flashback how he was able to survive. Smiley, a close-lipped professional diplomat who has a look on his face that suggests many hidden secrets, is asked to come out of retirement by the new Circus clown Percy Alleline (Toby Jones). 

His new job is to track down the mole in order to protect his own operation which he gives the dubious name of “Witchcraft.” The plot gets even thicker when Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) another British agent, appears on the scene telling Smiley that he had met Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova) who is married to a Soviet delegate, professes to know the identity of the mole. Additionally, Smiley's visit to Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke), another colleague who was forced to resign, leads him to the Russian spy Polyakov, who turns out to be a very important player. 

It is soon clear (if anything is worthy of that description) that the mole can be only one of four people codenamed Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, or Spy. These are Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hands), and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), along with Tarr, who some suspect is a traitor. Smiley works with an agent named Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), who he sends to collect information, often from the same British intelligence agency for which he is currently working. 

Like the 1966 Richard Burton film, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the spy business is shown as cynical and ambiguous, where loyalty and betrayal can be two sides of the same coin, and where both good guys and bad guys operate in the same moral parameters, meaning do whatever it takes and ignore ethical considerations. While individual scenes succeed in building tension and paranoia, putting them all together requires work, and the effort does not always produce results. When we do find the name of the culprit, the discovery lacks any real emotional impact. When Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy works, it has some wonderful engaging moments that resist the temptation to sensationalize, but unfortunately, these moments are few and far between.


Howard Schumann

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