Tinker, tailor, yawn, eh

Went and saw “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, a 2011 film based on a book of the same name (but with commas!) by John le Carre.

What I know of le Carre is this:

  1. writes books about a British spy called Smiler, Smiley or something such,
  2. as he is very much at the opposite end of spy fiction from James Bond, Smiler doesn’t smile all that much; and
  3. the books are apparently both popular and well-regarded.

Now, the film.

It starts from this: there’s this British thing called Circus. Or possibly the Circus; I’m not very attentive about the “the”. It’s one of their spy outfits, or some superagency, or some special agency; the film doesn’t bother telling us. It is apparently led by a man called Control (the Control?), unless he’s a very bossy secretary sitting at the end of the only meeting room the Circus has. (A one-ring circus?) He has this wacky idea there’s a mole at that very table, which apparently is a very important table, not that you would know from the surroundings; Smiler’s (uh, Smiley, that’s what he was) world is a 70s office hell and everything looks like the most depressing parts of your parents’ photo album. (Well, my parents’ album anyway; apparently all architects had a happy 60s and then burned out and started leaking concrete and drabness everywhere and this is the 70s.)

Now, Control is forced out of the agency for Reason X; possibly it was this mole fixation, or something else; the one catastrophe we’re shown occurs after C. is already shakily saying he’s being forced out. Maybe office politics; probably something that was explained in the book. The film spends its time rather on old people looking dour. Along with Control, out goes his man Smiley. Who apparently is not a field agent at this point in his life, because he’s sitting at the big table too.

Now, Control then dies. Whether this was just what old men do, or foul play, remained unclear to me. Also, some time passed; how much, remained unclear to me. (There’s a pattern here. I hope it’s not that I’m a moron.) Then the higher minister-level powers take Smiley off his retirement and put him into investigating Control’s old hunch. There are four suspects: the titular, pseudonymical Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and Spy of the abbreviated children’s rhyme. The Spy is Smiley himself; I kept hoping he would be the mole, because that would have been a mind screw of a plot and no mistake.

The other three were… uh… Mr. Unpleasant Short Guy, Mr. Estherhazy, and Mr. Fairly Handsome. I don’t know their positions in this vague Circus, because the film never told me. I don’t know what kind of characters they were, because the film told me so very little about them. Mr. Short Guy is apparently the new boss man (ringleader?); Mr. Easterwavy is apparently a foreigner originally or something and owed Control his life; Mr. Handsome had no attributes except an affair.

Apparently I was supposed to care about which of these characters was the mole. I didn’t; it didn’t seem to make any difference. Find the mole, okay; but which one is the mole, who cares.

(Er, looking at Wikipedia it seems there were five suspects and not four: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Poorman and Beggarman; and Smiley was the Beggarman, not a Spy. Seems I relied on the title a bit too much. But who the devil was the fifth character? I have no idea, and no interest. Nice work, movie, as if a name and a face are all you need for characterization. Grrr.)

The film was two hours of drab grimdark; apparently it wanted to show the cynical, brutal, paranoid side of spy business. Fine enough, and apparently the books do that very well; but the film just ended up being brooding old men brooding, muttering about torture and sluggishly looking for answers to uninteresting questions.

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