IMDB says... In the bleak days of the Cold War, espionage veteran George Smiley is forced from semi-retirement to uncover a Soviet agent within MI6's echelons.
The 73rd Virgin says... I've been looking forward to this since the pre-Christmas previews came out. I haven't read the book or seen the BBC series starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley. According to Jay Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal this covers BBC's multi-episode 324 minutes in about 40% of the time. As such, we arrive knowing George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a good guy, and little else. It opens with John Hurt as “Control” assigning one of his minions, Prideaux (Mark Strong - again) to go to Hungary and meet with a defecting general in hopes of discovering who is the mole operating at the top of the British spy service, referred to in slang as “the Circus”. Prideaux is shot which precipitates a crisis.
From there we travel back to the padded sound-proof rooms at the Circus where we meet all the old guys in charge – stars Hurt, Oldman, Ciaran Hinds (again), Colin Firth, non-stars David Dencik as Esterhase and the infamously tiny and ugly Toby Jones as Percy Alleline. The disaster in Hungary costs Control and Smiley their jobs and they retire in near disgrace to mournful saxophone music. Smiley looks into the distance a great deal, symbolically gets a new prescription for his glasses and appears to go into shut down mode. Alleline takes over at the Circus.
Meanwhile, “the Minister” who has charge of the spy service is convinced to secretly bring Smiley out of retirement to find out once and for all if there is a mole at the top and who he is. As Smiley re-activates and begins his investigation, another British spy (Tom Hardy) who is assumed to have been a defector returns from Istanbul with a story of how he received intelligence from a beautiful Russian. When he tried to report this back to the Circus, the Russian was betrayed almost instantly adding to the suspicion of a mole at the top.
Confused yet? Bored yet? Placed in time yet? I appreciate that this production expects so much of us. There are no scrolling bottom-of-the-screen bursts of text to identify locations, characters, dates, days of the week, etc. We are supposed to know just by the skylines that we are in Istanbul, Paris, London. We are supposed to spot one date on a memo to tell us we are in 1973 and deep in the cold war with the Soviets. We are supposed to recognize based on one blip of dialog that the head of the Soviet spy service is code-named Karla. Mumbled dialog and character names fly by, nondescript rooms suddenly become headquarters and central to the story.
If you don't mind your Bourne Identity in black wingtips (except one guy's red socks and hush puppies), ugly 70s-style glasses, drab overcoats, long blank glances, and somber music, then welcome home. I cede first place to no man in my fondness for moody character studies and great acting, but there is one bit of spy craft in the entire movie, maybe three shots fired, some bloodshed and not very much tension. No one breaks into a run. There is one funny line from an unattractive retired secretary about how she feels seriously “underf****ed”.
So what's left then, is the character study. Smiley experiences flashbacks, but nobody looks any younger while in them. We know he has an unhappy marriage and an unfaithful wife, but we never see her face, only his almost blank-faced disappointment at her behavior. In his best scene he reenacts for his assistant how he tried to turn Karla into a double-agent but Karla was a fanatic and “the fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt”. Several characters are forced to conceal, and then tidy up, their homosexual preferences, which I guess is pretty authentic in context, but in the end the only character we care about is Smiley.
Firth is good as always but Hinds and Hurt and Strong are wasted. Indeed, in the end we don't really know what any of them actually do or how they achieved their status as the only guys who go into the padded sound-proofed rooms. Director Tomas Alfredson is responsible for the very somber and creepy “Let the Right One In” but vampires don't need much of a back story. Cold war spies do.
I hear this is a hit and I'm glad, but I'm plenty snobby enough to believe that anyone under 30, or not used to this kind of production, is going to go from confused to bored pretty quickly as were a couple young women I overheard discussing the movie as we exited. The ending seems to cry out for a sequel as Smiley sews up several loose ends, but others hang. I did not say they hang tantalizingly.