Out in the Cold
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy invites comparison, if not with three Michael Caine Harry Palmers or current Richard Gere Paul Shepherdson, surely with its author John le Carré’s works on the small and big screens. Swedish Tomas Alfredson’s first English-language try comes up short against the spy novel’s 1979 U.K. Alec Guinness miniseries, while its uninteresting characters and dull color palette are no match for Martin Ritt’s humdrum broken espionage lives in black-and-white Le Carré The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.
Less “Secret Agent Man” than “Nowhere Man,” Gary Oldman’s George Smiley should be the perfect MI6/SIS man, unremarkable as a piece of furniture. In beige Mac trench coat, three-piece suit, and glasses the actor bought in an L.A. vintage shop, like his middle-aged fellows in a factory-like London headquarters, he blends into the monochromatic woodwork. His blond younger partner Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) wears blue, but of a tasteful Savile Row stripe, and agent Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) is snappy only in comparison with his peers.
In a dun world, it is not out of place that Smiley’s wife Ann (Katrina Vasilieva) momentarily leaves him for the more attractive latter and that hippie-ish “Scalphunter” -- field op -- Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) is the only one to flout company rules in becoming romantically involved with a potential informant (Svetlana Khodchenkova, as Irina). A bugbear in England and its security apparatus -- remember Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt -- homosexual love brings the only tears, from Guillam, and the renunciation of schoolboy Bill Roach (William Haddock) and tears accompanying out-of-agency-character rage from invalided out new-identity Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong).
This stiff-upper-lip weighs heavily, with low-key personalities difficult to tell apart. Shifts in short scenes and repeated ones -- how many dumbwaiter openings are necessary? -- a soup of characters, not clearly defined place- and time-jumping around 1973-74, and a murky double agent/mole exciting force, limit this to Le Carré fans. That author believes “the vast majority of the public doesn’t read,” but without prior familiarity from his printed page, film viewers will be restless.
Prideaux’s mission to Budapest goes wrong. Set up, he is shot outside a sidewalk café, a giveaway that there is a Cold War leak in the Secret Intelligence Service known as the Circus. The embarrassing cock-up causes heads to roll, concretely those of the organization’s head, code name Control (John Hurt), and his right-hand Smiley. Flashback snips confuse the fact that the disappointed chief is indeed out, in fact dead in a hospital bed (no indication of skullduggery there). But he has left behind chess pieces with photos attached of suspects narrowed down as the Russian mole.
Thus, the “Tinker,” short chubby Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), ambitious for the succession and, once there, to effect organizational change; the “Tailor,” for more sartorial Haydon; by-the-book and lower on the social ladder, aptly named Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) is the plodding “Soldier”; rescued from a dreary Vienna museum and fearful of being deported to Hungary, the “Poor Man” is bald Toby Esterhase (roughly, “East House,” played by David Dencik). Smiley’s worst nightmare Karla (voice of Michael Sarne) figures in, too, but the surprise face on the chess pieces is Smiley’s own.
Accepted back into service, the unflappable -- or flat -- agent is not astonished or upset. As when he spies Ann in passionate embrace at the holiday season celebration (at which Le Carré acts as “an elderly gay librarian”), he takes a step backwards but goes on with the assignment. England expects every man to do his duty, carry on, that sort of thing.
Le Carré’s prose and some screen adaptations are more thinking man’s turf than those of Ian Fleming. Thoughtful effort, however, cannot straighten or thaw out licensed to chill TTSS.
(Released by Focus Features and rated “R” for violence, some nudity/sexuality, and language.)