Susan Granger’s review of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (Focus Features)
If the plot of John le Carre’s 1974 Cold War spy novel seems familiar, perhaps you saw the BBC seven-part miniseries (1979), starring Alec Guinness. Indeed, there’s so much cognizance of the generic characters in this espionage whodunit that it’s difficult to sustain suspense successfully for more than two hours.
It’s 1973 when Control (John Hurt), who runs Britain’s M.I.6, known as The Circus, dispatches a field agent, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), on a secret mission to Budapest to talk a Hungarian general into defecting because he knows the identity of a treacherous “rotten apple” within the highest ranks of the British Secret Intelligence Service (S.I.S.) in London, a “mole” who has been feeding vital secrets to a Karla, a powerful Russian agent in Moscow. After Prideaux is captured and tortured, Control narrows the list to a handful of senior operatives but, after he succumbs to a heart attack, Undersecretary Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) summons George Smiley (Gary Oldman) out of scholarly retirement at Oxford to discover which one is the Soviet spy. Each of the suspects has a code name that was culled from a nursery rhyme: Percy Alleline(Toby Jones) is Tinker; Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) is Tailor; Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) is Soldier; and Toby Easterhas (David Dencik) is Poorman. Smiley’s code name was Beggarman, since he was Control’s second-in-command. New to the painstaking investigation and interrogation is Smiley’s cavalier assistant Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch).
Juggling far too many characters and confusingly ambiguous subplots, screenwriter Peter Straughan (“Men Who Stare at Goats”) and his late wife/collaborator, Bridget O’Connor, add a flashback Christmas party fragment, revealing how Smiley learned about his wife Ann’s infidelity, which becomes an integral part of the overall theme of betrayal and key to the culprit. Unfortunately, Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”) lets several scenes drone dismally on too long, making the pace quite ponderous.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is a cynical, sinister 6, a dreary, retro glimpse behind the Iron Curtain.