I'm a little taken aback at some of the reactions to Tomas Alfredson's new feature adaptation of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." I finished off my review a few days ago and went off to track down some critical discussion about the film to compare notes. A lot of viewers, including professional critics seem to have no idea what the movie was actually about, or what Alfredson was trying to do. Or they were so caught-up in trying to decipher all the precise maneuverings of the labyrinthine plot, they missed the larger point of the story completely. Or at least, the story as I understand it. I could be in the wrong here. I haven't seen the 1979 "Tinker, Tailor" miniseries and I haven't read the novel by John le Carre. But I still feel like I watched an entirely different story unfold than the one that other people saw.
So to try and help sort things out, I'm going to use this post and write down my understanding of what happened in the film. Maybe somebody else out there will get some use out of if. Heavy spoilers from this point on.
Here's the gist: Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) is the mole, who is part of a clique within the British Intelligence that is keen on using information from a Russian informant named Polyakov (Konstantin Khabenskiy). Polyakov is a fake, of course, and is actually feeding the British minimal intelligence, just good enough to hopefully attract the attention of the Americans. At the same time, Smiley's four suspects, the clique, think they are feeding worthless British intelligence back to the Russians through Polyakov, except one of the them is sending real intel. The other three protect Polyakov and the mole, not realizing that they're the ones being exploited.
Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) stumbles across the existence of the mole through the woman he was trying to turn, Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova), and tries to warn the Circus, but only ends up alerting the Russians and the mole. Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) doesn't actually think there is a mole, but goes on the Hungarian mole-finding mission that Control (John Hurt) sends him on anyway, out of loyalty. The Russians came down on both men for getting too close to the truth, resulting in Tarr becoming a fugitive from both sides, and Prideaux stuck in a miserable anonymous existence after being shot, abducted, tortured, and sent home to Britain. Prideaux's failure causes the scandal that removes Control, allowing the clique to assume power. Smiley pieces together the common elements of both of their stories together with records pilfered from the Circus to confirm that there really is a mole, being run by the Russian spymaster Karla, and that Tarr is telling the truth.
Smiley then flushes out the mole by sending Ricki Tarr to Paris, where he sends another warning back to the Circus. Having figured out where Polyakov is being kept, Smiley simply waits to see which of the four will show up there after they learn about the latest message. It's Haydon. His downfall also brings down the other three members of the clique, opening the way for George Smiley to return to the Circus as the new man in charge. He also leaks the location where Haydon is being held to Prideaux, allowing him to take his revenge.
But that's not the whole story.
This version of "Tinker, Tailor" is far more interested in examining the inner lives of George Smiley and his colleagues, looking at how they operate and what makes them tick. A major recurring theme in the story is emotion - all emotional attachments are a weakness in the spy game. Smiley constantly manipulates those around him through these weaknesses. He uses Ricki's hopes of finding Irina to get him to go back to Paris, knowing full well that she's dead. He sends Prideaux after Haydon, knowing they used to be friends, and knowing Prideaux will pay back the betrayal. You could also argue that he also knew about Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) having a lover, and gave him orders to clean house to ensure it couldn't be used against him - or to keep Guillam in line.
And that ties directly to how Smiley finally identifies the mole. In addition to flushing him out, Smiley also figures out who the mole is by looking at his own weaknesses which could be exploited by Karla. The flashbacks to the Christmas party aren't there to reveal any suspicious behavior among the four suspects, but to show us where the ever-watchful Smiley's own blind spot is. The only time in the entire film where we see Smiley expressing any kind of genuine emotion is when he discovers his wife Anne is having an affair with Haydon. That was his weakness. And the person who knew and used that weakness was the mole. The night that Ricki Tarr first tried to warn the Circus, Haydon was the first to show up on the scene. Smiley had the plausible explanation that Haydon received the information through Anne, so he didn't question any further. That was what let Haydon get away with it.
This more personal battle of wits, and Smiley's cerebral self-analysis are what I've noticed a lot of people seem to miss or gloss over while they're trying to untangle the bigger story. Admittedly the film doesn't play fair, being very stingy with the exposition so it's difficult to piece together what's going on. There was clearly a lot that didn't make it from page to screen this time around, and I know a lot of characters and loads of details got shortchanged. Even so, as someone who went into the film blind, I came away very happy with the psychological character study and the moody period atmosphere, so much so that I didn't mind that I didn't get every detail of the operations to uncover the mole. That's what rewatches are for. But Alfredson and Gary Oldman nailed George Smiley. It's not exactly clear how he won, but in the end, you definitely know why.
"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," is not an easy film to grasp, and it does require your full attention and concentration. It's slow, it's somber, and it's willfully opaque. But the deeper you look, the more there is to find. I don't think I'm done digging things up yet, and every new question just makes me want to see the film again.