Based on Le Carre’s novel about cold war spying. It’s about the high-up ‘mole’ in the British spying establishment, which is known as the ‘Circus’ because of it’s proximity to Piccadilly. Gary Oldman plays ‘Smiley’, the spycatcher brought out of retirement to catch the mole. One of the British spies, Prideaux, appears to be shot in Budapest as he tries to bring over a defector from Communism but he is tortured by ‘Carla’, Smiley’s most important opponent. Smiley thought Carla had been executed. Benedict Cumberbatch and Toby Jones are involved in a rooting out of the mole, as is Ciaran Hinds and Colin Firth. They are all suspects known as Tinker,Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Ricky Tarr is another agent who also tries to bring in a would be Russian defector from Istanbul and something happens to her. The mole is found but is he the right one ….?
There is an atmospheric feeling here of the sixties and seventies even it does succumb too much to the Life on Mars compulsion to steep that era in Dickensian gloom. Everything is horrible: bad haircuts, retro furniture looking greasy and constant smoking, all very seedy and tacky. Compared to now that era was shabby, but things get rather absurd. Still, it does evoke the Len Deighton London of red double decker buses and of Michael Cain’s Harry Palmer. Lots of anonymous people walking around in shabby raincoats and dispirited faces.
Smiley looks at his staff, who are his chief suspects, through the clinical glint of his spectacles, which make him look like he’s interrogating them from behind a malevolent window pane. Smiley seems super competent, choosing his words with pedantic caution. He negotiates the treacherous complications of espionage game playing, then acts as a sort of confessor for truth telling. He is quietly cynical about the ultimate purpose of the spying racket: not so much a conflict about ideology or a way of life but more a cruel probing of weaknesses with a chess player’s urge to be ahead of the prey. Photos of the chief suspects are stuck onto chess pieces. I haven’t read the book but the film provides no great insight into the psychology of the spies, their career justifications tend to be more incantatory rather than clarificatory. The captured mole confesses to an aesthetic preference for supporting communism which makes him seem capricious. When Smiley talks about Carla, the chief Russian opponent, he tells us Carla is a fanatic and as such will always win, but then he says that the fanatic harbours a secret doubt – which surely undermines what he just said!
This film is a tribute to the spy films of the 60s and 70s. Watching these films at the time (at the height of the cold war), I often wondered why anyone would bother to be a spy, the whole business seemed inherently futile. Absurdly, neither side could win because the whole point was to maintain a stalemate, it was the human analogy of all those nuclear weapons pointed at each other, known as MAO (mutually assured destruction). Spying looked like a chess game with no checkmate, but it was deadly serious, people killed each other. It’s as if the the danger was spying’s self sustaining dynamic, so it needed no further purpose once the cynically tired excuse of opposing ideologies convinced no one. However, the spy film propagates the very myth that there were no true believers, yet early in the 80s there were quite a few Russians communists in Afghanistan who thought they were doing good.
The film is certainly a corrective to the infantile tosh of James Bond. In Tinker, Tailor,Soldier Spy the British skies are gloomy. In Istanbul the spy looks onto sexual violence through lit windows. This is the spy as voyeur, the decadent cynic. It’s a tired male world where grumpy old men (seriously ‘underfucked’ in the words of the film), snap at each other through nicotine fog. Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, and Colin Firth play spies who must hide their gay sexuality. Smiley goes to Oxford to talk to Cathy Burke’s character, they compare the heroism of the war with the unglamorous and sordid life of espionage. Mark Strong is a schoolteacher who lives in a caravan, he’s some eccentric recluse as he mentors a unattractive pupil who is a natural outsider. Their odd relationship reminded me of the TV series Callan where the spy Edward Woodward worked with an unprepossessingly unhygienic tramp called ‘Lonely’. Mark Strong as Prideaux is not a stick hero, he is more like a dysfunctional bureaucrat than a social misfit. The Circus throws parties which make self conscious nervous fun of communists as if they acknowledge that the two sides have much more in common than their publics would realize. The film plays on this skilfully. Mostly, an excellent film about cold war spying. Just a couple of caveats.