Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, one of the best overall movies of the year, has as its counterpart the best blockbuster of the summer, X-Men: First Class. Separated by roughly a decade, both have as their subject the moral ambiguities of the Cold War, whether it’s expressed in the rot at MI-6 or the persistent ravages of the Holocaust. Both movies suggest that intelligence agencies lose by marginalizing the voices and original thinking of women in their midst. And both use tenderness between men, whether it’s explicitly sexual or not, to illustrate the costs of secret-keeping and the price of betrayal.
For the unfamiliar, John le Carre’s novel and the screen adaptations of it follow George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a dedicated spy and analyst, after his boss and mentor, Control, is disgraced and both leave the agency. In a fiendishly complicated series of events, Smiley returns to root out a mole who has penetrated MI-6 — known as the Circus — and to claim Control’s chair from the people who have wrested it from him.
The men Control, and then Smiley, suspect of being the mole are played by a set of British actors so incomparable that the makers of ensemble dreck like New Year’s Eve would weep with shame if they had any upon seeing the roster. Colin Firth is the polished, charming Bill Haydon (who happens to be sleeping with Smiley’s faithless wife); Toby Jones is Percy Alleline, an ambitious climber Bill refers to at one point as “a poisonous dwarf”; David Dencik is Toby Esterhase, a refugee from the Iron Curtain; Ciaran Hands is tough Roy Bland. The team Smiley puts together to assist him includes damaged agent-runner Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch); violent and emotional scalp-hunter Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy); and intermittently disgraced Jerry Westerby (Stephen Graham) and Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke).
Even without the dispiriting quest for the mole, spycraft is, in this world, a rather grim enterprise. “All my boys. All my lovely boys,” reminisces Connie when George comes to visit her at the university where she’s nested after her expulsion from the Circus. “That was a good time.” “That was the war, Connie,” George reminds her. But even though there’s something sick about preferring a hot war to a cold one, Connie’s yearning for clarity makes a certain kind of sense. She’s tougher — and nuttier — than Rose Byrne’s oft-blown off secret agent in X-Men: First Class. “I don’t know about you, George,” she says when her guest arrives, “but I feel seriously under-fucked.” When Percy shuts down her investigation into Poliakof, the Russian cultural attache who is running the mole, it’s done less with the misunderstanding of First Class and with a more active malice. “You’re losing your sense of proportion,” he tells her. “Perhaps it’s time you moved into the real world.” It’s an expulsion from paradise with Percy as little tin God. Connie’s mourning a time when not only were the enemy and the tactics well-defined but when she was valuable and respected. (In a nice touch, we catch a glimpse of graffiti that reads “The Future Is Female” on a dingy London wall in the film’s climactic sequence.)She’s not the only one. When Smiley recounts a meeting where he tried to turn Karla, the Soviet spymaster who’s placed the mole, it’s with a kind of grubbiness. “The Americans had had him tortured,” he recalls wearily, drunkenly. “No fingernails. It’s incredibly hot.” When he comes down to it, what he tells Karla is not that life is better in Britain, but that it’s time to recognize that both societies are irredeemably flawed. The mole, when he finally confesses, tells Smiley “It was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one. The West has become so very ugly.” Both heroes and villains are very tired. This is the kind of movie where a middle-aged spy going in for the kill takes off his shoes to avoid making noise, unholsters his gun, and pops an antacid.
Which is not to say these characters don’t feel things, and feel them violently. In the memory of the MI-6 staff Christmas party that frames the movie, we see Control sew the seeds of Percy’s future hatred of him, mocking him over the punch: “Did you mix this? You Calvinistic, penny-pinching Scott! It’ll take us five hours to get drunk on this monkey’s piss.” And we see Smiley’s strings cut at that same party when he discovered Bill and his wife together in a dark room while the rest of the staff sing the Communist InternationaleSoviet national anthem, conducted by a Santa Claus in a Lenin mask. Ricki cries as he describes the Soviet woman he’s fallen in love with and wants brought back for him. “I want a family, thank you,” he tells Smiley. “I don’t want to end up like your lot.”
But like in First Class, it’s the tenderness between men that drives some of the movie’s most emotional sequences — and critical plot points. Control’s firing is the result of a botched operation in Budapest in which agent Jim Prideaux is shot. Most reviews of Tinker, Tailor will single out Gary Oldman’s performance as Smiley, which is indeed remarkable, but for me the career-defining moment may actually be Mark Strong’s turn as Prideaux. Thought to have died in Budapest, Jim was actually tortured and returned to the UK, after which he was exiled from MI-6 to a position as substitute teacher where he impresses his snotty, swotty pupils by killing a bird that invades the classroom and befriends Bill Roach, the terribly vulnerable new boy parked at school after his parents’ divorce. Before setting off for Budapest, Control warned him to “Trust no one, Jim. Especially not in the mainstream.” It’s a warning that seems to apply to both his spy work and his cramped private life, glimpsed in a photograph in Connie’s home of him and Bill Haydon together betraying a closeness more than friendship. When Jim befriends Bill Roach, it’s with a mix of recognition and rue. “You’re a good watcher…us loners always are,” he tells him. And later when Smiley comes to visit, Jim coaches his student in the observation of his strangely still mentor, asking “What’s the matter with him? Doesn’t he like us?”
X-Men: First Class did a beautiful job of communicating what it’s like to have someone recognize — and value — the most secret part of yourself, and the power you can recognize when you have that kind of support. Tinker, Tailor is an extended meditation on emotions that First Class addressed in its final sequence, the emotional tally when that bond is severed or that profound trust is betrayed. It’s a point not confined to the tragedy of Jim’s life: the price of working for the Circus is clear in a scene where Smiley orders one of his helpers to clean up anything in his private life that could be used against him. The man goes home and breaks up with his boyfriend, sitting stricken in his chair as his lover snaps at him “If there’s someone else, you can tell me. I’m a grownup.”
The ending of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is one of the campiest, most floridly emotional sequences I’ve seen on film all year, set to Julio Iglesias’s rendition of “La Mer,” and jumping from a long-ago Christmas party that includes an exchange of tender, desiring glances with the same power as the opening sequence of Shame; to an assassination; to a private coronation. It’s one of the most surprising, gratifyingly weird things I’ve experienced in a long time, a testament to the value of restraint so when you say you mean it the audience will know you aren’t kidding. And it’s a powerful statement about the casualties of the so-called Cold War, and the price paid by the people who kept it that way.