Dating Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The ideological monoliths of the Cold War are gone. Can a film about a secret service traitor have any resonance for the modern audience, beyond the historical?

James Elwes

Leonid Brezhnev’s visit to Washington in 1973, the year before le Carré’s novel was published, began a period of improved relations between the United States and the Soviet Union

The film adaptation of the 1974 John le Carré novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, from a technical perspective, a supreme exercise of compression. Its Byzantine plot is expertly crammed into two and a half hours of celluloid, in an effort of distillation described recently by Gary Oldman as like “fitting an elephant into a phone box.”

Oldman takes the lead role in this new adaptation and, in doing so, he takes on one of the iconic characters of British spy fiction: that of George Smiley. He does so brilliantly. Smiley, a spy-master, is that very British phenomenon, the interior man. Nothing is displayed. All is kept under wraps: secret. This makes him a very tricky proposition for an actor. Added to which, the shadow of Alec Guinness, who took on the role of Smiley in the 1979 television adaptation, is inevitably cast across this production. The TV series, which consisted of seven hour-long episodes, fixed Guinness in the popular imagination as Smiley and is widely regarded as one of the best television series ever made. For these reasons, this new film adaptation is a brave project indeed.

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