With this adaptation of John le Carré’s novel, Tomas Alfredson has set himself the unenviable task of squeezing a notoriously labyrinthine plot (later reworked into a seven-part television series) into two short hours of cinema time. For a Tinker Tailor virgin, watching it is not unlike the initial experience of watching The Wire: finding one’s bearings, working out relationships, and coming to terms with the particular language involved. In this case it’s not street slang but code-words, like ‘control’, ‘the circus’ and ‘Karla’, on which no elucidation is offered. It’s a slightly distracting puzzle, and makes you want to watch the first hour again.
The film is beautiful – all dusty rooms and smoky corridors, yellows and browns and three-piece suits – and contains a masterful performance from Gary Oldman as Smiley, the retired MI6 agent tasked with uncovering a mole amongst his former colleagues. His is a face you could watch for hours – and Alfredson seems to agree. One memorable moment sees a whisky-fuelled Smiley reliving a former encounter, the camera settled on full facial close-up – one eye obscured by the shadow of his thick-rimmed glasses; the other glinting, expressive; thin lips offering the merest hint of a sneer.
The ‘frames’ of these glasses provide a motif which Alfredson uses in countless other shots, presenting the action through lace-curtained windows or half-opened doorways, repeatedly partially obscured. He’s unafraid to show us characters walking away, or the back of people’s heads. Two of the most important figures in Smiley’s life, his main adversary in Russia and his estranged wife, remain unseen throughout. This is a murky world to which, emphatically, access is not ours.
It’s curious for an ostensible ‘whodunnit’ to expand so little on the very characters (tinker, tailor, etc.) who drive the plot by being under suspicion. In fact, their portrayal by such a stellar cast is about the only thing that helps us distinguish between them – and when the culprit finally is revealed, the moment delivers surprisingly little narrative punch. Perhaps that’s the point: it’s not really about the discovery, but Smiley’s journey – but then I have to admit I was also unsure about what exactly he’d learnt from the experience, or how he’d grown. So perhaps that’s the point, for those unacquainted with the book, at least: this highly stylised visual accompaniment will remain – like Smiley himself – a quiet, elegant enigma.