Murky Business

A spy plot so twisted that solving the mystery is a mystery.

Even longtime George Smiley fans will admit that his creator, John le Carré, is an acquired taste. Le Carré’s spy novels are complicated and moody, filled with characters that you begin to understand but never get to know very well. In order to enjoy a le Carré book, or a movie adaptation of it, one must commit to paying strict attention to everyone in it and everything about it. 

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Rated: R

Directed by: Tomas Alfredson

Starring: Gary Oldman, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth

In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, veteran MI6 agent George Smiley has been forcibly retired in the early 1970s, during the swirl of the Cold War, then, to his own surprise, brought back to head up an inside investigation. Rumors have it that there’s a mole within the agency. It’s Smiley’s task to figure out who it is, if indeed there is one.

Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) has the right idea in his approach to the film’s atmosphere. Not only does he keep things slow and quiet, he also features many moments in which people are silent while they’re just sitting and watching.

Maybe the message is that spying is a dull business, but it’s more likely that the director and writers Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan are trying to establish Smiley in his world. He’s a perfect spy because he just fits in, and no one notices him.

Of course, that can make for some dry movie watching. Luckily they got Gary Oldman to play the part, and he gives us a weary Smiley, someone with a lot to think about, from his near-impossible assignment to worries about his philandering wife. That he convincingly pulls this off with very few words is one hell of an acting feat.

The film opens in Budapest, with a misleading bit of action, then turns to its milieu of people wearing browns and grays, sitting in low-lit rooms, calmly smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey, all wondering who the bad guy could be, one of them faking it because it’s him.

Though there are plenty of flashbacks that show better times and dole out certain revelations, everything about the film is murky, from its physical look (except for the cool, Kubrick-like “spy pod” in the MI6 offices) to its strand of plotlines. Things are easier to understand when voiceover is added, and we’re being told what’s going on while it’s being played out. But then the film suddenly ends, all tied up in a bow, with the mole’s identity uncovered by the crafty Smiley. How did he do this? I don’t know. It’s a mystery how he solves the mystery.