From the few John le Carre novels I’ve read – and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not one of them – I’d say his books are as much about spying as they are about being British.
So I found it interesting that a Scandinavian director will try, and be allowed, to “capture” this quintessentially English writer’s work. Le Carre is one of the executive producers (and features in the party scene, according to the credits), so he obviously gave the director his blessing.
It didn’t take long before I was bored, though. Not having read the book, like most viewers, I only had the film in front of me and a lot of it didn’t make much sense.
For starters, there were a lot of pointless scenes at the beginning that supposedly served to show the endless routine of a civil servant’s life. But they went on in a manner that had more to do with making Magritte-like compositions than reflecting the very ritualistic nature of such a life.
British restraint is one thing, but without what Harold Pinter called the weasel under the cocktail cabinet it falls flat. So here we have a European film, then, and it’s somewhat indulgent. No wonder the English don’t want to join the eurozone.
Gary Oldman, of course, does an excellent job as an ex-spy who comes out of semi-retirement to find the mole in MI6. Most of the time he just has to be pointedly blank, but his George Smiley does eventually reveal himself to an extent and it’s a fine study in minimalism.
However, there are four characters under suspicion at the “Circus”, according to Control (John Hurt, who cunningly looks like an older version of Oldman), and he has stuck small photographs of them on chess pieces.
Now, I have played more chess games than read Le Carre novels and the former have certainly been tenser than the film, no matter how many people appear uninvited in Smiley’s house. After a while you can start discerning your online opponent’s personality through his or her style, but we get to know absolutely zip about our four suspects.
There are no concrete clues, just long visual teases. When the mole is finally outed and we think, well, obviously it had to be him, it’s got more to do with the actor than what the script gave him and therefore us.
Moreover, Swedish director Thomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) sees no point in giving Smiley’s wife a face, let alone a personality, even though she is a source of great – but virtually unseen – pain to Smiley.
The result is a film that looks good but feels like someone rather loosely moving a bunch of chess pieces around on a board. I don’t think Le Carre intended to draw Smiley - playing black - in quite that way.