Now that your Hallmark-approved display of affection featuring flowers, chocolates, and fine dining are in the rearview, keep the romance rolling with a screening of — *checks notes* — Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
While there’s nothing in this superb John le Carré adaptation that would prompt any sane programmer to screen it alongside the likes of Titanic or Pretty Woman, love nevertheless serves as the driving force for nearly every character with a speaking part. The same may be said of plenty successful motion pictures not centering on pure evil, but the various forms that love takes in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (which makes its 4K debut on Feb. 22 thanks to cinematic cupid Kino Lorber), the ways in which those layers are developed and overlap, set the film apart from its espionage peers – while also providing a needed inroads to connecting with its icy players and deciphering its labyrinthine plot.
Primarily a workplace drama, the Cold War tale foremost spotlights these agents’ passion for British Intelligence and in turn, England, its people, and the values and history they represent. It takes a special kind of person to commit oneself to this cause, and within this brotherhood, extremely strong bonds understandably develop.
This camaraderie is precisely the pressure point that MI6 boss Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) uses to appeal to George Smiley (Gary Oldman), who was forced into retirement along with former top man Control (John Hurt) when an operation in Budapest involving fellow agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) went horribly wrong.
Needing Smiley to investigate the recently deceased Control’s hunch of there being a mole “at the top of The Circus,” Lacon stresses to Smiley the concept of preserving a generational legacy that’s been shattered — and the disgraced agent is quick to return to the job at the prospect of restoring his and other innocent parties’ reputations.
The lack of passion evident in Smiley’s non-working life likewise factors into his acquiescence. Though not one for showing emotions, this epitome of “stiff upper lip” British stoicism seems especially glum and out of sorts as a civilian, and Alfredson depicts an optometrist appointment and other mundane activities as drab and monotonous, especially compared with the intellectual (and visual) stimulation of the colorful soundproof conference room where Smiley once convened with his fellow top agents.
Stuck in this plebeian purgatory and again without the company of his adulterous wife Ann, Smiley sees his sense of purpose renewed by the covert assignment even as it tests the mettle of his man on the inside, junior agent Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch). After taking a significant risk to obtain classified documents, Guillam returns to Smiley’s safe house and furiously unloads his frustrations of “spying on his own” and breaking his moral code.
It’s one of the film’s few emotional outbursts and isn’t lost on Smiley, who, as a means of thanking Guillam for his sacrifice, treats him to an evening of drinks and stories. Though unspoken, there’s a sense that Smiley sees much of himself in Guillam, whom he specifically requested be part of the probe and, after a night of quiet boozing, trusts enough to let down his guard and be vulnerable about his past — specifically how his marriage may have jeopardized his professional doings.
Indeed, throughout Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, romantic love is portrayed as at odds with being an effective agent and something in need of being suppressed or, if possible, eliminated. Following Smiley’s advice to tidy up any loose ends, closeted homosexual Guillam sacrifices his relationship for the cause and, though devastated by the loss, his priorities are indisputable.
Here and elsewhere, however, it’s clear that this fidelity to the job isn’t necessarily healthy on a personal level. With the possible exception of ladies’ man Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) and enigmatic Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), none of the Circus’ top brass seem particularly happy, though the workplace environment and pressures following Jim’s death have almost certainly dimmed their general moods. Meanwhile, Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) wears a smug grin due to the success he thinks his Operation Witchcraft intel project is achieving, but as holes are poked in those efforts’ legitimacy, it becomes clear how much he has invested in the job.
Even the mole, when discovered, reveals that his decision stems from essentially falling out of love with the West. And his ultimate fate comes via an action tinged with mercy — another kind of love and, at least here, an offshoot of true friendship, albeit one run afoul.
Their examples serve as cautionary tales for young, resurfaced field agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), whose patriotism meets its match in a desire to convince his superiors to trade for Russian prisoner Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova), with whom he remains infatuated after a “holiday romance,” despite not being his “type.” Wrestling with his feelings while seeing where his current career path might lead, Tarr expresses a desire to resign, telling his childless colleagues, “I want a family, thank you. I don’t want to end up like you lot.”
Morose though these agents have largely become, there was a time not too long ago when it at least seemed like everyone was merry. Big toothy grins and hearty laughs permeate Smiley’s memories of the last office Christmas party before everything went to shit — vibrant, bright scenes that galvanize his commitment to restoring order yet remind him of his agony at witnessing Ann’s infidelity.
Resuscitating that spirit results in a compelling mix of heartbreak, second chances, and victories — and a sense that, for many involved, the ends justified the means. As the kids say, get you a sweetheart that looks at you the way Smiley and Guillam look at The Circus, and odds are good that you’re in for one hell of a Happily Ever After.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is out on 4K from KL Studio Classics on February 22nd.