The Return of George Smiley: Gary Oldman Stars in ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’

Gary Oldman as George Smiley in
Gary Oldman as George Smiley in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"/Photo: Jack English/Focus Features

There’s a history of foreign filmmakers producing iconic snapshots of English culture: Richard Lester’s “Hard Day’s Night,” Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-up,” Stanley Kubrick’s “Clockwork Orange,” Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility,” and, now, Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” which combines the Swede’s haunting minimalism with the great English tradition of espionage fiction.

Perhaps the most famous of his novels, John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy follows former intelligence officer George Smiley as he attempts to expose a mole in the Circus, the nickname for the English secret service. Inspired by the account of notorious double agent Kim Philby, promoted to the upper echelons of MI6 while spying for the KGB, it is the first book in the Karla trilogy, in which Smiley pursues the Russian spymaster codenamed Karla. (Philby’s story, as told in his absorbingly remorseless memoir My Silent War, has inspired many works, such as Alan Bennett’s play The Old Country and Robert De Niro’s movie “The Good Shepherd,” with Billy Crudup as the Philby figure.) Based on le Carré’s years in British intelligence (he knew Philby), these novels are no glossy James Bond adventures. The middle-aged, bespectacled Smiley’s investigations reflect a far more realistic — and dangerous — depiction of international espionage, one that historian Ben Macintyre calls a “battle fought in the mind, from behind a desk, and from beyond the grave.”

Tinker Tailor was famously adapted as an acclaimed seven-part miniseries in 1979 with Alec Guinness as Smiley and many questioned whether a film version could do justice to le Carré’s densely plotted novel. As it turns out, yes, easily: The new “Tinker Tailor,” adapted by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan and helmed by Alfredson (best known for the icily beautiful “Let the Right One In”), is an enthralling piece of cinema.

While the miniseries, with its leisurely pace and mundane settings, reflects the intimacy of the international stage and the gradual acculturation of information that is espionage, Alfredson’s production concerns itself with the ripples of monolithic power across not just governments but also personal lives — literally, the mole in the house. It also expertly restores the narrative tension of espionage, through the visual metaphor of surveillance; Smiley’s iconic glasses, windows, an observant schoolboy, and rifle sights all evoke the spy’s endless watching brief as well as the oppressive awareness of the eyes on him. Backed by a formidable ensemble cast — among them, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, and Benedict CumberbatchGary Oldman anchors the film with an elegant, superbly restrained performance as Smiley. His Smiley — graying hair, trim suits, bland overcoat, quiet manner — is all in the eyes, flashing hints of the ferocious warrior roiling within the career spy, almost using the violence of Oldman’s most famous roles to create the events of the character’s past.

The title “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” references an old children’s counting rhyme, here codenaming possible moles within the Circus. But it also playfully suggests the famous metaphor for espionage from Rudyard Kipling’s spy novel Kim: “the great game.” The world of the Circus — another deceptively lighthearted image for a serious institution — is a continual series of contests, played individually and collectively. Alfredson’s film explores the almost mischievous callousness of the double agents who toy with the lives of colleagues, friends, lovers, and family, as well as the concealed anger that fuels the betrayed. As le Carré notes, “Secret services are the only real measure of a nation’s political health, the only real expression of its subconscious.” The mole is the illness at the center of the Circus, marking the decline of Britain as the supreme world power, but the wearily noble Smiley returns to become its — and England’s — silent, but powerful, conscience.