Dir. Tomas Alfredson
(2011, R, 127 min)

I saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with a friend of mine. “I’m … confused,” she said as the end credits began to roll. “Me too,” I concurred. We were both relieved; at least we weren’t alone. As she reported to me later, she encountered a woman in the ladies’ room with whom she discussed the story. My friend gave our interpretation of the ending. The other woman implied we were mistaken but was coy about the details, saying, “You’ll have to read the book.”

Thanks, but no thanks. It’s not that I doubt the literary prowess of author John Le Carre, but that if a film requires its source material as a decoder ring, something went wrong in the adaptation. The story follows George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a Cold War British spy who was forced into retirement but is called back into duty to root out a high-ranking Russian spy in British intelligence. Part of the problem is that so much of the plot takes place in Smiley’s mind. We see him deducing in long, meaningful glances and sudden, surprised realizations, but he keeps his discoveries mostly to himself. I’ve never been fond of excess exposition, but this film seems to go out of its way to keep us in the dark, and makes it all worse with a flashback structure where past and present aren’t clearly distinguished. Was there ever a draft of the screenplay, by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, that just played it straight?

I can’t say I especially liked the film, but despite its vague storytelling I was surprised to not exactly dislike it either. Director Tomas Alfredson previously made the excellent Swedish vampire drama Let the Right One In, in which he demonstrated a gift for atmosphere and dread. Here he does the same, imagining espionage as a perpetual dark night of the soul and its participants as sad, lonely men in an alternate reality of crosses, double-crosses, lies, and liars through which the world must look like a terrible place. It’s a psychologically rich milieu Alfredson explores, with actors Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, and others effectively playing those conflicted feelings of loyalty and mistrust that exist between all men in this paranoid business. As a story, Tinker Tailor is not satisfying, but as a state of mind it’s intriguing.