As the clock ran out on a particularly gloomy December in the final weeks of 2020, the British author John le Carré died of pneumonia. He was 89.
One of the greatest spy novelists ever to hold a pen, le Carré had long been renowned for his bestselling books about the moral ambiguity and intelligence machinery of the Cold War. His subject at once human and political, le Carré captured the high tension and intrigue of a conflict waged not by missiles and tanks but by bureaucrats at typewriters.
Le Carré had understood the hidden Cold War on a level uncommon among his countrymen. At 16, he’d been recruited by an MI6 officer to work as a courier. By the mid-1950s, he’d left Oxford for a career in British espionage, working in both intelligence and counterintelligence. While taking the train to and from a day job at MI5, le Carré first began to write fiction.
Le Carré was born David Cornwell and adopted his famous pseudonym to publish his early novels — including 1961’s Call for the Dead, which introduced his signature character in bespectacled George Smiley — while still working for the government. His precise, elegant prose, disavowing adjectives in favor of substantive verbs, reflected his time writing intelligence reports. The author’s stories told of secret agents, backroom interrogations, wire-taps, and break-ins, and they depicted cloak-and-dagger intrigue with blinding clarity. His early bestsellers, including 1963’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, were gray fiction for a gray world.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was published in 1974 after le Carré’s career in espionage is believed to have come to a close — hastened by the betrayal of British agents’ covers to the KGB by double agent Kim Philby. The events informed Tinker’s story of a mole hunt in Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. It remains one of le Carré’s best-known works and was promptly adapted for television, with Alec Guinness playing George Smiley for the BBC in 1979.
Many of them instant bestsellers, le Carré’s spy novels have captivated filmmakers in the half-century since they were published. But perhaps the greatest adaptation of his tightly wound, spectrally atmospheric style — at least, the one that’s come closest to capturing the experience of reading le Carré — came as recently as 2011, in Tomas Alfredson’s marvelously meticulous Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It’s streaming on HBO Max until January 31.
Le Carré's novels recall ornate timepieces, their brushed metal exteriors concealing an array of whirring intersecting parts, which tick relentlessly forward whether you understand each of their functions or not. This description suits Alfredson’s adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy exactly. It is a sharp, sophisticated feature, a puzzle of confusion and paranoia.
Set in the early 1970s, in a dire London where smoke hangs in the air like a veil, it follows semi-retired intelligence officer George Smiley (Gary Oldman). Smiley is determined to uncover the identity of a Soviet mole in the upper echelons of British intelligence, a shadow realm colloquially known as “The Circus.”
In adapting Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Alfredson and his team sought to preserve the gnomically dense nature of the story. The film’s screenplay, which was nominated for an Oscar, holds up a decade later as a masterclass in adaptation by Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor, condensing le Carré’s labyrinthine setting and the coiled interiors of his characters into an absorbing two-hour film that moves with precision and purpose.
Held against the bare-knuckle, high-octane 007 pictures toplined by Daniel Craig, Alfredson's adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy invigorated the final days of 2011, a breath of cold air on a January morning. Once described by le Carré as a “breathtakingly ordinary” man, Oldman plays Smiley as the anti-Bond, the spymaster as an elder statesman, whose career in espionage has saddled him with only a sense of weary disillusionment. He carries a grim knowledge he cannot share and that has thus left him desperately alone.
The irony of this is that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy surrounds Smiley with peers. He launches a methodical investigation into the secret state, which has shifted in some ways but otherwise stayed the same since he and intelligence head Control (John Hurt) were forced into retirement following a compromised mission in Budapest. Smiley is soon probing the service’s leadership. His suspects include:
- the “tinker,” chief Percy Alleline (Toby Jones),
- the “tailor,” deputy Bill Haydon (Colin Firth),
- the “soldier,” lieutenant Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds),
- the “poor man,” lieutenant Toby Esterhase (David Dencik),
- and the “spy,” which could refer to Smiley himself but extends to field agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) and his boss Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), who serves as Smiley’s proxy in snooping around this fearsome intelligence apparatus.
As Smiley follows the circuitous route that information travels through the Circus, Alfredson’s direction is precise and voyeuristic, as if shot through a telescope. Often, he steps back to visually compartmentalize all the spies, all their segmented operations visible at once. In league with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, whose analog compositions deepen our sense of the dreary London setting, Alfredson often conveys information through color, image, and pacing that the script makes a spectacle of quietly withholding. Maria Djurkovic’s production design, meanwhile, has the curious effect of further flattening the spaces in which these spies operate, positioning them as pieces on a chessboard even whilst maneuvering their way to seats of power in their classified game room.
Jacqueline Durran's costuming is perhaps the film's secret weapon, outfitting all its men in finely tailored suits and studiously avoiding the gaudier hallmarks of ‘70s fashion. Everything from a bow tie to red socks tells you more about the characters than they’d ever choose to tell you themselves. So it’s worth noting when Hardy’s Ricki Tarr enters the picture resembling a young Steve McQueen in his yellow jacket and loafers.
What emerges from the careful construction of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, with its immaculate production values, metronomic progression, and concealed focus on character psychology, is an espionage thriller that asks audiences to lean forward and consider the toll of paranoia on both the individual and the organization.
Observing the truth of spies in a maze and presenting them not as men of action but as bureaucrats protecting their vested interests as their empire crumbles into dust, it’s damningly blunt about the true ideological vacuum of the Cold War. As le Carré wrote in a later Smiley novel, “The right side lost, but the wrong side won.” The film succeeds in adapting le Carré because it understands his real fascination was not with spycraft but with the doomed brinkmanship of deception, the twisted negotiations of loyalty and betrayal through which these men best understand one another.
In depicting such an amoral web of intrigue, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy treats its operatives as spooks haunting one another in the twilight of a conflict that has consumed all their souls. Not for nothing does street graffiti promise “The Future Is Female,” for it surely does not belong to these men too lost in their labyrinth and too committed to looking over their shoulders to move the country forward. Their emotional repression is England’s, too.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as such captures le Carré’s cynicism in riveting fashion. What’s most chilling about the film — undoubtedly one of the greatest to explore the human relations inside reconnaissance — isn’t its wintry air or graystone color palette but the matter-of-factness with which it depicts the soulless, circular nature of spycraft, its secret savagery.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is now streaming on HBO Max until January 31.