Spying is popularly conceived of as a glamorous line of work. The James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Mission Impossible films are all cocktails, trysts, gunplay in the tropical sun, and evil brought to heel. The audience gleefully absorbs the antics of the hero-spy, a romantic figure who easily escapes the institutional harnesses of his superiors.
Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy takes place in a different world. There is no super spy here, just a vision of the claustrophobic, embittered world of the intelligence community and its human cost.
Based on the novel by John le Carré, Tinker, Tailor is concerned with the hunt for a Soviet mole who has infiltrated the highest levels of the British intelligence establishment, an agency known at “The Circus”. (Le Carré’s work popularized “mole” as a term for a double agent.) Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, Tinker Tailor’s rumpled, aging hero. Smiley, enmeshed in a corrupt institution, represents an elite obsessed with perceived national decline. Taking place in 1974, the setting is drab; the action largely happens under perpetually overcast skies or in poorly lit, smoky little rooms. What glamour remains is due to the foreignness of the profession depicted and the fact that British spies hold an allure that can’t even be dispelled by this seedy tale of treachery.
Technically, Tinker, Tailor works beautifully. It’s well-paced, -shot, and -acted. Oldman is already receiving Oscar buzz and the powerful supporting cast is rounded out by luminaries of British cinema—Colin Firth among them—and rising stars like Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy, playing rogue agent Ricki Tarr. Its most serious flaw is its medium, not its composition. A two-hour feature film simply doesn’t allow the audience the time to get to know the suspects, taking some of the bite out of the final revelation.
Tinker, Tailor is a story about betrayal and the institutional context that fosters it. Hardy’s Tarr seems tailored-made to subvert our romantic expectations of spycraft when he recounts, mid-film, a recent mission abroad that involved wooing a beautiful enemy agent. It’s as close to Bond as we get—foreign locale, enemy goons, a sexy Russian spy. The setting has even been changed from the novel’s Hong Kong to Istanbul—heightening the contrast to From Russia With Love, a Bond novel/film that takes place in the latter city. But where Bond wins the day and the girl, Tinker, Tailor’s British spy is betrayed by his own agency and forced to watch as his love is strapped to a gurney and flown back to the Soviet Union to face what is sure to be a brutal interrogation.
Despite the Cold War setting and the shadowy Soviet threat, Tinker, Tailor and the British spies who populate it are far more concerned with fading national prestige than with nuclear war or communism. Despite their nominal alliance against Moscow, far more vitriol is heaped on the Americans who have eclipsed Britain as a superpower.
The characters, especially the mole, are all trying to reconcile themselves to a world where, as Dean Acheson famously observed in 1962, “Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role.” After 1945, when the sun could not set on the British empire, the United Kingdom rapidly fell in the “prestige hierarchy of nations,” a fact keenly felt by the agents of the Circus who have tied their self-respect to their country’s international standing. They grew up in a world where Britain was a great power but reached maturity in an era of decline. “Poor loves. Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away. Bye-bye, world,” muses one character in le Carré’s novel.
The American “cousins” are both scorned and envied; Smiley’s mysterious boss dismisses his American allies as “bloody yanks” while his collegues are embarrassingly keen on getting a pat on the head from their CIA counterparts. The Americans don’t really care one way or the other. In a telling scene, the head of the Circus brings fresh intelligence to an American official who brusquely takes the folder and waves him away without looking up from his desk or saying a word.
The mole’s betrayal of everyone and everything he supposedly stood for is only the most extreme manifestation of decline. Tinker, Tailor gives us a portrait of a corrupt institution in which bureaucratic striving and delusions of grandeur have allowed something rotten to grow and thrive at its heart. Smiley’s character is an antidote of sorts. He attempts to douse his old colleague’s war nostalgia with realism and he cares for his subordinates (even if he must sometimes deceive them).
The malaise and humiliation of the Circus is contrasted with its operations during World War II, an event many of the characters seem to understand as Britain’s final moment of glory on the international stage. (Right before Smiley is called out of retirement he is shown watching a newscast about Winston Churchill.) “That was a good time,” sighs a retired-Circus veteran, Connie Sach, played by Kathy Burke. “A real war, Englishmen could be proud then.”
That statement gives us an idea of just how jaundiced and emotionally stunted the Circus’s worldview is: World War II was, in reality, not a good time for anyone. In Britain alone, almost half a million people died (a number dwarfed by the toll sustained by the Soviet Union, which lost 15 percent of its population).
The ostensible purpose of an intelligence service is to protect people, but the agents of the Circus are too obsessed with the idea of spying as a great game and the need to carve a place in world history to pay much attention to such considerations. Near the film’s conclusion, the mole tells Smiley that he betrayed his country because he needed to see himself as someone who has made an impact: “I’m someone who has made his mark.” And he has. We only see three of the deaths he is responsible for, but they are all viciously cruel.
Perhaps Smiley recognizes that Britain’s imperial decline may have made his elite comrades feel glum, but overall it's been a good thing. Postwar Britons enjoy a universal health-care system, old-age pensions, family allowances, and unemployment insurance that their prewar equivalents would look upon with envy. Newborn British children were expected to live a full 30 years longer at the close of the century than they had been at the outset, when the Empire was in full bloom. The myopic spies of the Circus, who want to see themselves as figures of the James Bond mold, may be experiencing an existential crisis, but it’s unlikely that most of their country people—for whom they are supposedly working—would sympathize.