Smiley Wins Again

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

a film directed by Tomas Alfredson
British Broadcasting Corporation/Photofest
Alec Guinness as George Smiley in the BBC miniseries Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, 1979

Early in the cold war Soviet intelligence had an agent named Kim Philby embedded in the hierarchy of the British secret services. Philby was an Englishman of good pedigree (an important asset in London espionage circles) but troublesome habits (hard drinker, a bit too charming with women, including other men’s wives). He was a Cambridge man. The Russians gave him the code name “Stanley.” In 1963, upon learning that he was about to be caught, Philby fled to Moscow, one step ahead of the sheriff, as it were. He never came back.

John le Carré’s fictional Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, published in 1974, begins with the British discovering that a Soviet agent with the Russian code name “Gerald” is embedded in their secret services’ home office, also called “the Circus.” Evidence indicates that “Gerald”—a “mole” in le Carré’s spy jargon—is one of four men competing to become the next chief of British intelligence. Which is the traitor?

To dig him out, le Carré conjures up a crafty investigator—patient, polite, relentless master spy George Smiley—and we have the makings of a best seller about the once-romantic world of British espionage. In 1979, the book was successfully dramatized as a television miniseries in six hour-long installments notable for an unforgettable performance by Alec Guinness in the role of Smiley.

Now, thirty-three years later, Tinker, Tailor is back again, this time as a movie, though not so triumphant perhaps as its television predecessor. Movie remakes of the past’s greatest successes rarely are, but this one is handicapped from the start by being given only two hours and seven minutes to tell its tale. A story accustomed to wallowing in six-hour luxury is bound to look pale and wan when stripped down to a scanty two hours and seven minutes. There are many good reasons why movies cannot run on for six hours, so when cinematic necessity compels squeezing a fine six-hour show like Tinker, Tailor into one third the time, audience and story are likely to be shortchanged, as happens here.

Not all of the four “mole” suspects receive equal time on-screen; mystery and suspense are consequently diminished. Without time to linger over the busy love life of Ricki Tarr, le Carré’s romantic agent-as-loose-cannon, Ricki’s touching affair with Irina, wife of a carefree Russian spy, seems more bewildering than touching. Short rations also leave too little time to capture the defeated, end-of-history mood that gives the story its solemn weight. Less is not always more, but sometimes just less.

As a writer, le Carré is too good to settle for producing a mere best seller. The Philby case was an obvious stimulant to storytelling about catching a traitor, but it was also an extraordinary blow to British spirits. It was especially destructive…

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