1973: London is drab, faded by economic decline. The optimism of the post-war boom is gone. The world is split into two opposed systems, the capitalist west and the planned economies of the east, dominated by undemocratic bureaucracies.
In the British intelligence service, the ’Circus’, a Soviet mole is suspected: he’s at the very top, but who is he? The search is at the heart of ’Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, the film adaptation of John le Carré’s novel, starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley, the spy brought out of enforced retirement to find the mole.
Much of the cold war was fought out via espionage. British national propaganda portrayed ’our spies’ as heroic patriots serving a noble cause, while the other side’s were violent low-life. Of course, both sides used the same methods of bribery, corruption, thuggery and violence.
As antidote to the official line, the Circus is portrayed as full of self-serving, cynical men jockeying for position. Smiley knows he is in a dubious trade and is troubled by it.
Smiley recounts his attempt to persuade Karla, the Soviet master spy, to defect. Having spent so long probing the soviet system’s weaknesses, he is also only too well aware of the weaknesses of capitalism. He can only offer Karla the thought that both sides have as little worth as each other.
Whatever ideal Smiley once held is now replaced by a negative vision and he is not alone. When the mole explains his choice, he served the Stalinist system not due to morality, but the "ugliness" of the west.
None of the characters can survive intact in this grubby world. Relationships and lives are wrecked. The brutality of spycraft is shown by the sparing and shocking use of violence or its immediate aftermath. This is not the Bond movies’ fantasy world.
In reality espionage made only marginal differences to the cold war. Stalinist regimes collapsed due to the contradiction between the planned economy and the bureaucracy that deformed and eventually smothered it, not due to the work of western spies.
Tinker Tailor Solider Spy dates from a time of mass strikes and social unrest. The western ruling class sensed that their system was doomed, expressed by West Germany’s Social Democrat Chancellor, Willy Brandt who said: "The lights are going out in Europe. In 20 years Europe will either be Communist or Fascist."
It is no coincidence perhaps that this film comes out now, when the system is again in crisis and is being questioned, when the ruling class is divided and lacking in confidence.
This is a gripping, intelligent film from director Tomas Alredson. The acting is brilliant, especially Oldman and Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam, Smiley’s protégé.