The tall, athletic man introduced earlier in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as British Intelligence officer Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) walks into a classroom and begins to write his name on the chalkboard. Only he does not write the name we’ve come to know him by. The typically garrulous young males attending the tony prep school remain blissfully unaware of their new teacher’s identity as he starts handing out the class assignment. But the viewer is all too keenly aware of who Prideaux is if only for the fact that we saw him shot in the back at the start of Tomas Alfredson’s film adaptation of the John le Carré novel. Is this a flashback? Or did Prideaux somehow survive the shooting? Prideaux’s mild demeanor belies his efficiency, a fact his students become aware of when a bird trapped in the chimney suddenly flies into the classroom in confusion. Prideaux rapidly pulls out a club from his desk drawer and swats the bird down to the ground where it continues to squeal in pain. As Alfredson directs the camera to capture the students’ horrified reactions, the sound of Prideaux beating the bird to death comes from off-screen.
This memorable scene crystallizes much of the convoluted – yet ultimately satisfying – story of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. For one, the momentary confusion caused by the squawking bird is a metaphor representing the chaos a Soviet double agent is causing within the upper ranks of the Circus, the British Intelligence branch MI6 that Prideaux was working for at the time he was shot in Budapest. Secondly, the viewer must determine whether what is being shown is taking place in the film’s past or its present. Lastly, the sequence illustrates how a character who’s been left to languish in a sort of purgatory for a failed espionage mission may actually be underestimated in his level of competency. The treatment of Prideaux after the shooting – torture, reassignment and disavowal – has been a far more protracted death than the mercy killing he granted the poor animal.
One could say the same thing about George Smiley (Gary Oldman), ex-Deputy Director of the Circus, who was dismissed along with his boss, the mysteriously designated Control (John Hurt), when Prideaux was believed to have been killed in Hungary. Control had secretly sent Prideaux there in order to uncover a mole amongst his top lieutenants: “Tinker” (Toby Jones), “Tailor” (Colin Firth), “Soldier” (Ciarán Hinds) and “Beggarman,” Smiley himself. Smiley’s firing along with that of Control’s made the question of his treachery academic. But both operatives were now on the outside, unable to ferret out which of the other three officers was providing the Soviet double agent some of the Circus’s most valuable secrets. The aimless Smiley goes about his daily routine – swimming in the Thames, contemplating the ruin of his marriage and unable to shake the paranoia inherent in his lifelong career – all but forgotten by his country. However, the death of Control, and intelligence gathered by an underling, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), initiates an invitation from the Prime Minister’s office for Smiley to return and continue his former boss’s investigation into the identity of the traitor.
The usually volatile Oldman is superb as the constricted Smiley. Oldman’s portrayal is even more amazing considering it follows in the footsteps of Alec Guinness, whose performance as Smiley in the original 1979 BBC miniseries and its sequel, Smiley’s People – both available on DVD from Acorn Media if you’d like to compare – is among his most iconic. Over the hill, his hair streaked with gray, and wearing oversized spectacles – red frames for the flashback sequences, horn-rimmed for the ones set in the film’s present day, 1974 – Oldman’s Smiley is a study not so much of repression but economy. Smiley never raises his voice in the film, not even at the close friend who is cuckolding him, except for when an associate tries to justify his betrayal of queen and country. Smiley’s reflective glasses even serve as an occasional blind, shielding his tempestuous, observant eyes from any examination. When a fly is buzzing around the interior of a car driven by protégé Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley, rather than fruitlessly wave his hand in the air chasing it down, waits until the fly is close enough to the window to roll it down and let suction take care of the rest.
What one finds most striking about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the anguish and loneliness that lies at the heart of its brittle, cold exterior. As the movie starts to wind down, the depth of alienation experienced by those in this nasty profession becomes ever more apparent. The desire for emotional connections – the utter loneliness of the job – drives many of the film’s players, including Prideaux, the closeted Guillam, the traitorous mole and yes, even the stoic Smiley. Tarr, the lethal operative whose intelligence relaunched the inquiry, is eager to finish his part of the mission to chuck it all for a quiet life raising a family. Prideaux and Guillam, each separately involved in his own secret homosexual relationship, are the epitome of the type of individuals bred for the espionage service, men of character who have developed an unerring ease in cultivating a double life. And then there’s Smiley, whose frustrating love for his philandering wife is the only chink in his carefully built armor. Smiley’s weakness might just be the proper fuel for his instinctive ability to unearth his fellows’ motivations and find out who the mole really is.
Atlanta-based freelance writer Tony Dayoub writes about film and television for his blog, Cinema Viewfinder, and reviews DVDs and Blu-rays for Nomad Editions: Wide Screen, a digital weekly. His criticism has also been featured in Slant’s The House Next Door blog, Opposing Views and Blogcritics.org. Follow him on Twitter.