Let the Spy One In
“I want you to go to Budapest,” John Hurt intones to Mark Strong in a hellishly beige-and-mustard cigarette-smoke-fugged 1970s. Why does no one ever intone at me and tell me to go to Budapest and wear polyester and smoke cigarettes and get all espionagey, dammit?
I haven’t read John le Carré’s iconic novel [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] of Cold War espionage and, if this sleek, elegant filum has the way of it, repressed male emotion. So I was not already keyed in to who all the players are, except I do vaguely recall something from my budding childhood pop-culture awareness about Alec Guinness being very Alec Guinness-y and wearing big so-uncool-they’re-cool brainy specs. (That would be in the 1970s TV miniseries, of which this is not a remake; it’s a new-make from the book.) So I had no idea what the title even refers to, though it does ring with a wonky sort of hip in my nerd-nostalgia gland.
This Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy just, you know, starts. No opening credits. No previously-on. Just Mark Strong sporting the worst haircut of his life and the neatest retro neato-ness ever going to Budapest, where something bad happens that suggests there a mole somewhere in the system, and then there’s flashbacks of an MI-6 Christmas party at which men in ugly expensive three-piece suits exchange significant glances and maybe some homoerotic flirtations and I’m instantly totally enthralled. It’s all so minimalist and spare and Scandinavian, as if someone made a James Bond movie in Ikea. I hasten to add: I like Ikea. I like Scandanavian minimalism. And not just because they call me Johanson. Though maybe a little bit because of that.
Director Tomas Alfredson — ha! Scandinavian! — drops us right into the middle of the action and trusts that we are smart enough to keep up even if we don’t know any of the characters’ names or, frankly, what the hell is going on. (In this respect it is much like his grade-school-vampire flick Let the Right One In, except what no one will talk about is how national security and treasonous betrayal makes one feel instead of how bloodsucking and school bullying makes one feel.) And we can keep up. It’s thrilling to encounter a movie that doesn’t dumb everything down and is clever enough to not need to, because it isn’t all about explosions and instant gratification: it has other things on its mind. Did I say “action”? Not so much. This is the 1970s: there isn’t even the action of people sitting in front of fancy computers or quick zoom-ins on pixelated surveillance footage on a laptop or anything. No one has a cell phone to shout in to at dramatic moments. And that’s wonderful. This is spy stuff as it really is, or at least as it was then (probably). Not James Bond but meetings and memos and the tiniest turn of a head or an ambiguous glance across a crowded room. It’s, god help us, romantic. We are pining for the Cold War here, when megatons of nuclear death had itchy ideological trigger fingers on them, and it was better than it is today. Or at least more comprehensible.
Right, so: there’s a mole inside British intelligence, it seems, back in the days when the British Empire was just about clinging to being a thing and that mattered. Also: Someone might be gay, which I bet wasn’t in le Carré because even fiction of the day wouldn’t touch that. (The script is by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, the latter of whom wrote The Men Who Stare at Goats, which is pretty much the same movie, only funnier.) But it’s all the unspoken secrets that make the men here — the spies are all men here; women are all but absent from this world — so much more vulnerable and their positions so much more precarious. A tiny turn of the head can turn into a wild-eyed deer-in-headlights portrait of terror in an instance, and does. The pasty white guys who ruled the world back then were not as bland as they appeared, and the world was not so beige as we remember (or as the carefully composed and colored cinematography suggests we remember). The subtle suspense here isn’t just of the intellectual kind but the emotional kind as well.
It’s all plummy British accents and one of the most to-die-for casts in recent memory: Hurt and Strong and Gary Oldman in an amazing turn as Smiley, the retired spy called back to find the mole, and deliciously reliable old hands Colin Firth and Ciarán Hinds and the wonderful Toby Jones and the toe-curlingly talented up-and-comer Benedict Cumberbatch with his sensitive and expressive face, and Tom Hardy, who is going to be huge, with his bedroom eyes and his formidable presence. The mole could be any of them. It could be all of them, playing their own individual clandestine chess games. And even after we learn who it is, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it still could be all of them.
Because the languid air of acceptance that hangs over it all says that moles and turncoats and suspicion and mistrust aren’t distractions from the game: they are the game, and removing one player doesn’t end the game. No modern spy movie that I can recall has better created a sense of the fruitlessness of its own protagonists’ actions. If they all stopped playing, they could all stop playing.