Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
I remember reading this book when it first appeared in print, during the height of the Cold War. John le Carre described the inner working of M16 in such a way that you felt that while all of us ignorant civilians were blithely going about our ordinary lives, there was a secret, undercover struggle, continual and of epic proportions: spies gathering data, planting false information, easily switching cultures and languages, changing identities, sensing when something wasn’t quite right, having clandestine trysts, never revealing everything to anyone, and always keeping secrets, because secrets, after all, were the currency of their craft. I also recall the careful way Mr. le Carre’s narrative would describe interaction, but leave much to the reader to make inference, to puzzle out implications, and construct possible scenarios.
The movie of the same name makes a couple of important decisions. First, it makes no attempt to “update” this Cold War scenario to contemporary Russian antipathy, with the breakup of Communism an assumed historical context. We’re back in the more clear-cut past, where we knew exactly who the enemy was: or so we thought. Secondly, the movie plays like the book. The narrative is not told clearly or precisely or in any kind of linear or chronological fashion. There are many, many scenes of British men in suits sitting and talking to each other. Hardly a word is ever spoken in alacrity, much less a shot fired in anger. There is only a faint whiff of the scent of blood, as if to remind us that we are, indeed, dealing with life and death here, despite the buttoned-up mannerisms of the quiet, reserved manipulators on the screen. There is merely a bare hint of sexuality, but it’s distant and cynical, as if it’s just another tool of espionage, yet another weapon for the self-controlled to use against the self-indulgent.
Gary Oldman’s performance as the inimitable George Smiley recalls every British bowler hat, stiff upper lip and dapper demeanor, treating histrionics as so much balderdash, the last refuge of the desperately incoherent. Carefully he treads softly down the hallowed labyrinth of her Majesty’s unassuming and unimposing headquarters for the secret service, populated by sallow-faced overly-serious minions with about as much resemblance to James Bond as the Queen Mother. And yet it’s loyalty to the crown that is at the heart of George Smiley’s motivation. Above all, he is a patriotic civil servant, and as such, with his quiet demeanor and non-threatening presence, is the perfect foil to ferret out treachery in the ranks. Yes, there’s that botched little operation in Turkey to answer for, and there’s the looming presence of the clumsy but impossible-to-ignore Americans, but in the end, it’s a battle of wits with the other professional raconteurs. You mess with the deceptively unimposing George Smiley on his own turf at your own considerable risk.
There are many viewers who will be very frustrated with the considerable lack of explanations, the long silences, the camera panning to grey, lined old faces to show quiet desperation, or pent-up exasperation. And yet, to those who are patient enough to accept this unassuming film at its own pace, there is a certain reward in gazing through the kaleidoscope and discovering the discernible pattern. It’s not for everyone. But then, neither was novelist le Carre’s introspective literary method in the first place.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Interim Pastor, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas