By John A. Riley

At one point in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Kathy Burke’s dejected, alcoholic ex-secret service researcher is enthusing about the good old days. Gary Oldman‘s George Smiley reminds her that she’s talking about the era of World War Two, and she responds, dewy-eyed: “a real war… Englishmen could be proud then.”

Tinker Tailor deals, obliquely, with the idea of facing up to the fact that the structuring myth of “the good war” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Further, Smiley, his sidekick Peter Guillam and everyone else involved in “the circus” (the insider’s sardonic name for the secret service, ostensibly due to its location at Cambridge circus) are involved in a morally ambiguous power struggle in which each side is prepared to use whatever underhand means are necessary to outwit the other.

Dealing with Smiley’s attempts to find out which one of his high-ranking colleagues has been passing information to the Soviets, the filmmakers were required to compress a massive, sprawling source novel in the process of adaptation. Consequently, the film bristles with detail and repays (perhaps requires) multiple viewings. Despite this density, the film never feels cluttered, either in its narrative or its mise en scene.

If the Tinker Tailor TV series was matter-of-fact in its glum atmosphere, the film adaptation makes drabness into a point of style. As envisaged by the BBC, the secret service’s meeting room had off-white emulsion coated walls, and could pass for a University of London seminar room. Now it has egg-box soundproofing in a brown-beige colour that’s almost dizzying to look at as it reflects off the room’s central table.

The chessboard that Smiley finds in his former boss’s apartment is the film’s only tug at the gimp string. A small photograph of each of the suspects has been taped to the key pieces. It’s over-the-top symbolism but it’s also an inaccurate visual metaphor. In chess one must innovate within strictly laid out rules. Tinker Tailor is a slow-motion, autumnal version of a bar-brawl: no-holds are barred and there’s no moral high ground.

Some of the specific pleasures of this film may be lost on a non-British audience; the scene of Smiley and Guillam conversing dejectedly in the window seats of a Wimpy restaurant has a ludicrous, brilliantly-judged bathos to it. Wimpy is a bastardised, cargo-cult British version of an American fast food chain, and here it’s a representative of declining British power in a Cold War, post-Suez world.

It’s been remarked elsewhere that, when the traitor is finally uncovered, it feels anticlimactic, that it could have been any of the suspects. But this is entirely in keeping with the theme of the film; the mole is not a zealot clutching a little red book, just someone who made the choice to switch from one team to another in the midst of a dirty fight.  He reveals that his decision to defect was as much aesthetic as it was ideological: “the West has become so very ugly, don’t you think?” There’s little room for beauty here, just a poker-faced realpolitik that remains impassive even in victory.

Director: Tomas Alfredson
Writers: Peter Straughan, Bridget O’ Connor
Based on the novel by John Le Carre
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Robyn Slovo
Cinematographer: Hoyt van Hoytema
Starring: Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kathy Burke, Colin Firth
127 mins