There are spy stories with glamor and chases and explosions and answers. And there are spy stories like this one, murky, gritty, grubby, complicated. The brilliant BBC miniseries version of the the book by John le Carre opened with the grim-looking Russian matryoshka nested dolls, a perfect image for this Cold War era story of a traitor at the heart of British intelligence. The original miniseries, with Alec Guinness as the exiled spy called back in to find the mole was known for being both superbly made and almost impenetrable. I watched it four times before I felt confident that I had some idea of what was going on. And now it has been remade in a fraction of the running time. Its production design is brilliantly done and there are moments of extraordinary power and artistry but it is even harder to follow. Yes, the difficulty is part of the point. While one of the reasons we love movies and indeed stories of all kinds is that they make sense of a complicated and ambiguous world, and you can even make sense by pointing out the complicated and ambiguous nature of things, this movie does not have the time or the scope to tell this story effectively and suffers by comparison with the superior earlier version.
Gary Oldman plays the Guinness role of the ironically named George Smiley. He is a spy who was once close to “Control” (John Hurt), the head of British Intelligence, officially known as MI6 but referred to by everyone as “the Circus.” Smiley was pushed out of the Circus, which is why when one of their agents is double-crossed, shot, captured, and tortured, that someone in the top levels is giving secrets to the Soviets, Smiley is the only senior spy who is not a suspect, and thus the only one who can investigate. Control tells him it is one of five men, and he assigns code names to them based on the old nursery rhyme: tinker, tailor, soldier, poorman, and beggarman. Smiley is helped by a young agent named Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a rogue agent named Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), as well as a visit to a retired MI6 head of research (Kathy Burke in the film’s best performance).
But nothing is as straightforward as that paragraph suggests. Everything is codes within codes and what is not said or shown is more important than what is. The atmosphere is the most important character in the film. The production design by Maria Djurkovic powerfully evokes the era as Britain adjusts to post-WWII economic struggles and its rapidly shrinking role in international affairs with its dingy institutional spaces and ironically child-like vocabulary. The scenes set at an office Christmas party are dead-on and deadly, the mirthless drinking and sad little decorations. The contrast between the smallness of that world and the enormity of the end-of-the-world issues in those early days of WMDs is conveyed better by a hand-lettered sign in a grimy office than by the the big reveal about who has been providing secrets instead of gathering them.
Parents should know that this film includes violence with shooting and torture, characters who are injured and killed, sexual references and situations with nudity, and strong language.
Family discussion: Read about the real-life “Cambridge Five” scandal that inspired this film. What do we learn from the Christmas party scenes? From the use of a nursery rhyme as code?
If you like this, try: the BBC miniseries with Alec Guinness and its sequel and Breach, about a real-life US mole