Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Did you see it? Did you understand what happened? Don’t feel bad if you didn’t: Malcolm Gladwell who’s a pretty damn smart man said of LeCarre’s “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” that he’d read the book once every five years since he was sixteen, and only started figuring out what was happening on the third or fourth read. LeCarre doesn’t provide a road map for his readers, he sort of shoves them off a cliff and hopes they can keep up.
The thing about working in a movie theater (hereafter referred to as “the Cinecave” – because it’s a cinema that’s underground. Literally. It’s an underground cinema, hence, it’s “cinema” + “cave.” It’s very clever, but only because I didn’t come up with it) is that you get to go see movies for free.
The other thing about working in the Cinecave is that you really don’t want to go to see movies there, for free or otherwise. It’s not because it’s not a nice theater. It’s not because it doesn’t play good movies. It’s because for the love of holy Jesus Mary and Joseph I already spend a lot of time there and I don’t care to spend my non-working hours at work, even if I’m enjoying myself.
But sometimes I do go there on my non-work hours, because there are films that I am so dammed excited to see.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is one of those films, and I wrote about going to the after hours staff screening of it roughly two weeks ago. Actually, two weeks ago exactly, now that I realize today is Thursday. I’ve been having a hard time keeping track of which day is which this week.
I went to see the movie again today, for a couple of reasons. First, because I was seeing it so late the last time, I drifted asleep in a few parts. Second, I’m reading the George Smiley books — in order! — and wanted some Gary Oldman in the role. I’ve also started the BBC series with Alec Guinness as dear Mr. Smiley — I almost prefer him to Oldman.
I mean. Obi Wan > Sirius Black. Sorry, Harry.
So I caught the first show today (I took today & tomorrow off from my full time job). After, I was the last person out of the theater (it was the biggest auditorium and it was pretty full for a Thursday afternoon), and I was talking with one of my coworkers who’d seen it with her husband. “Okay,” she said to me, “Explain this movie to me, because I didn’t follow it.”
So as she cleaned the theater, I explained. And since I’ve had lots of people tell me as they exited the auditorium that they didn’t follow what had happened, I thought that my explanation to my coworker would make for a good blog post.
A Warning in Two Parts:
First, this reconstruction of the film’s plot is based on what I remember of seeing the film. I may at times misremember certain things, either due to my failing memory, or because I’m confusing it with events in the book, or the BBC adaptation. Also, the reconstruction will attempt to proceed on chronological order (the film frequently utilizes flashbacks).
Second, spoilers. Lot of ’em. You are entering a Spoiler Zone. Avoid Avoid Avoid!
*****SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT ON********
*****SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT ON********
*****SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT ON********
November: Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) is sent to Bulgaria to evaluate a member of the Russian Trade Mission who might be vulnerable to being tapped as an asset. Tarr recognizes that this individual, Boris, is in fact, like himself, a “Scalphunter”: a spy who is responsible for dirty stuff – assassinations, kidnapping, beating people up, etc. Tarr’s about to head back to England when he witnesses Boris beating up his wife, Irina. Tarr has a hunch that Irina might be vulnerable to working for the British, but it turns out she’s actually an intelligence operative who tells him she knows the identity of a Russian-planted mole in the upper echelon of the Circus, the upper organization of the British Intelligence Services. She’s unwilling to reveal who this person is until she’s brought out West.
Tarr contacts the Circus with this information. Almost immediately, Russian operatives kill Boris, and Irina is beaten comatose and put on a Russian flagged freighter bound for Odessa. Additionally, the British station agent is murdered, with his death framed on Tarr. Tarr knows the mole in the Circus is onto him and goes AWOL to avoid being killed.
Later, Control (John Hurt) has become aware of the mole in the Circus. He has been suspicious for some time of a source developed under a program called “Witchcraft” run by one of his deputies, Percy Allenline (Toby Jones). This suspicion is verified when Control is contacted by a Hungarian General organized in Hungary’s Intelligence services who is willing to provide the name of the mole as a prelude to becoming a high level British source. Control sends a trusted agent, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Budapest to meet with this general. Prideaux ignores his instructions “not to trust anyone” and reveals his mission to Bill Haydon (Colin Firth).
Prideaux has been instructed, as soon as he meets with the general, he is to communicate to Control one of five code words (based on a children’s rhyme) the identity of the mole. Tinker for Percy Alleline, Tailor for Bill Haydon, Soldier for Roy Bland, Poorman for Esterhase, and Beggarman for Smiley.
Prideaux gets to Budapest, but recognizes that he’s being set up. When he attempts to escape, he’s shot by a Hungarian agent. Although it’s been reported that he has died, he has in fact been nursed back to health, interrogated, and repatriated secretly to the United Kingdom, where he’s begun teaching under an assumed name at a boarding school. He’s also seen Irina shot in front of him, although he had no idea who she was.
But before we get to the point that Prideaux’s been nursed back to health, the Circus’s communication room is exploding with word of what’s happened in Hungary. An officer named Jerry Westerby (Stephen Graham) had been assigned by Control to monitor communications for word from Prideaux. When Westerby tells Control that Prideaux has been apparently killed, Control becomes distant. Westerby begins calling the deputy heads, starting with Smiley. However, Smiley’s wife Ann informs Westerby that Smiley is away in Germany. Ann, who is rather serially unfaithful, passes what Westerby’s told her to Bill Haydon (who is in bed with her), which explains why Haydon arrives at the Circus without Westerby contacting him.
(Interesting side note: “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is the first of the so-called “Karla Trilogy” which pit George Smiley against Russian spymaster Karla. The second book is “The Honourable Schoolboy”, and Jerry Westerby is the honourable schoolboy of the title).
As a result of this cock-up (Control had gone outside of all channels to keep the mission secret), Control is forced out. He also forces George Smiley (Gary Oldman) to step down with him. He knows Smiley is not the mole because Smiley was in Germany when the Prideaux operation happened. Additionally, he believes Smiley is the best person to identify the mole, and communicates this to Oliver Lacon, who oversees the intelligence services on a Parlimentary level.
Lacon (Simon McBurney) doesn’t believe Control, he feels Control was paranoid. He just files the information away. Meanwhile, Ricky Tarr has re-entered England. He contacts Lacon and tells him what happened in Bulgaria, and urges Lacon to investigate the matter through his supervisor, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch). Lacon enlists Guillam to bring Smiley to a meeting, where Lacon explains Control’s theory about a mole. Smiley agrees to identify and bring out the mole, and enlists Guillam for his dirty work.
Smiley learns more about Witchcraft, which is the program Alleline (who is now head of the Circus) has been running. Witchcraft is designed to protect a British source code named “Merlin” who is passing intelligence to the British. Merlin is a top placed source in Russian intelligence. To communicate with Merlin, the Circus has established a safe house in London. The existence of Merlin is restricted to Alleline, Bland, Esterhase, and Haydon, who provide him mostly junk intelligence, with the occasional beefy report, to keep Merlin’s supervisors in Moscow convinced he’s still on their side.
In reality, the information Merlin is feeding the British is mostly junk, with the occasional beefy report. Meanwhile, high level intelligence is being passed to Merlin by the mole, with Merlin transmitting that information to Moscow.
Paranoid that Control and Smiley were trying to take control of Witchcraft before their dismissal, Alleline and Esterhase became very protective of their source and dismissed members of the intelligence services who got too close to his identity, such as the case with researcher Connie Sachs (who later tells Smiley that she is decidedly “underfucked”). Sachs is aware that the Russian cultural attache Polyokov acts as the funnel of information to and from Merlin, but believes Polyokov is in reality a member of the Soviet military, after finding footage of uniformed officers saluting him while he is in civilian clothes. She tells Alleline she suspects Polyokov is a Karla operative, and is dismissed from the service. Esterhase pays a sum of money to Prideaux after his relocation and tells him to “forget Tinker Tailor”, but believes Tinker Tailor was a scheme of Control’s to identify Merlin.
Tarr makes contact with Smiley and explains what happened in Bulgaria. To verify his story, Guillam is told to steal the duty officer’s communication log from the Circus. Guillam is able to accomplish this with some help from Medley (first introduced in LeCarre’s first novel, “Call for the Dead”). Guillam thinks he’s been caught when Esterhas calls him to a meeting with Alleline, Blunt, and Haydon, who warn him that Tarr has been turned.
Arriving at Smiley’s, Guillam is surprised to see Tarr, who he hasn’t seen since before Bulgaria. Guillam believes Tarr is a traitor until Smiley asks Tarr if he knows precisely what day he contacted the Circus about Irina’s information on the mole. Tarr answers that he knows the day: November 20th. Smiley shows Guillam the log book, where the page for November 20th has been carefully removed. Tarr is telling the truth.
Smiley sends Tarr to Paris to force the mole’s hand. Tarr is willing to do this, but wants Smiley to do everything he can to have Irina brought to England. Smiley has already determined Prideaux is alive and debriefed him and is convinced Irinia is dead, but does not tell Tarr. Smiley is able to force the location of the safe house from Esterhase.
In Paris, Tarr barges into the British Intelligence Office with a gun, and instructs them to send a message to the Circus, repeating his message from Bulgaria. The four top men of the Circus are called in to headquarters, but it’s Bill Haydon who goes to the safe house, with a message to Karla to have Tarr eliminated, where he’s captured by Smiley & Guillam and admits to being the Soviet mole.
Haydon admits to Smiley that he seduced Ann on Karla’s orders. Karla was afraid that Control was onto Haydon, but didn’t know how close he was. By seducing Ann, Smiley wouldn’t be able to trust his feelings on Haydon, and any accusation might appear as sour grapes. Haydon is going to be deported to Russia, but is shot and killed by Jim Purdeaux, who were close friends in the past.
Alleline is dismissed from the Circus, and George Smiley is made the new head of the Circus.
Y’know, I don’t know if that was any less confusing than the movie was. Well, that’s what the comment section is for.