Eyeglasses a clue to understanding past, present in ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

Based on John Le Carre’s 1974 best-seller, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy,” takes place in the mid ‘70s, when the Cold War is still in its Big Chill stage.

So, with a mole deeply burrowed into the inner circle of “The Circus” (as British Intelligence is called), something must be done to keep the Commies at bay. The Circus’s ringmaster, if you will, — code-named Control and played by John Hurt with a heavily furrowed brow and deep rasping voice — knows this. But he doesn’t know who said mole is.

His effort to find out doesn’t go as planned and the bureau is shaken up from head to toe. Somehow the mission lands in the lap of George Smiley (Gary Oldman).

Smiley’s last name is almost ironic —like Robin Hood dubbing his largest follower Little John. See, smiling is about the only thing Smiley doesn’t do well. That and keeping his marriage intact. But then, that’s a part of the puzzle.

Director Tomas Alfredson, who made the excellent Swedish version of “Let the Right One In,” mix and matches his film’s timeline, flashing back and forth between past and present. Sometimes Control is history. Others, he’s leading everyone in a Russian-language sing-along at the annual Christmas party. Sometimes, Smiley knows something; sometimes, he hasn’t learned it yet. Or he’s already put it to use.

It’s confusing in a solid, old-fashioned British –spy-caper way. You almost expect Oldman to pass by Richard Burton on a rainy street corner.

Le Carre holds his clues close and his red herrings even closer. My smart friend Mary Brown, who watched the movie with me, followed the twists and turns the best. But then, she once worked with Walter Cronkite. Plus, she’s an inveterate mystery reader.

So Mary’s the one who pointed out to me (on my second viewing) one obvious hook the movie offers to help us keep up with the time-jumping. Keep tabs on Smiley’s eyeglasses. They’re different in the present (that’s 1974) than they are in the past (before 1974).

Usually, when one doesn’t exactly follow a movie, it’s off-putting. The key to “Tinker Tailor” is that you “get” just enough to get to the next scene. By the end, you may still be wondering which way is up (or if East is still East and West is still West). But the premium cast keeps you in the loop. Or close enough.

I never like to recommend movies that are better the second time because most of us don’t have the time or money to see the same movie twice.

But I was so intrigued by “Tinker Tailer” and so totally taken with its nicotine-brown, cigarette-gray tones, I had to watch it over again. It is damn cold for these spies and they can’t come in because, well, what else will they do? A retired spy is pretty much a dead spy.

Oldman anchors the film with an enigmatic yet all-too-human portrayal. His lack of glamour has an odd inverse effect: he becomes star quality in an old trenchcoat. The rest of the cast — Hurt, Toby Jones, and Colin Firth, among others — give the film the old-pro patina Le Carre’s intricate story demands.

“Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy” reminds us the past is never past, even when it seems like it’s all over…except the Russian caroling.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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