The Reptilian Thrill-lessness of 'Tinker Tailor Solder Spy'

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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy opens on screens outside of New York and Los Angeles today, and goes to wider release after that. It will leave many viewers scratching their heads: Even Slate's film critic Dana Stevens has owned up to exiting the theater a bit confused. "It is a demanding film," director Tomas Alfredson told The Atlantic last week. "I want it to be demanding."

In the December issue of The Atlantic, contributing editor James Parker takes a look at novelist John leCarré's character George Smiley, the "anti-James Bond" that stars in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. As for this new film adaptation of leCarré's work, Parker isn't impressed:

The new model of Tinker, Tailor—opening in the U.S. in December—is, for me, problematic. Director Tomas Alfredson, previously known for the well-regarded vampire flick Let the Right One In, has reduced the already low pulse of the BBC version to a throb of nearly reptilian thrill-lessness. Which would be fine, except that much of the distinctive le Carré atmosphere has also floated away. Circus HQ, for example, in the novels a warren of pokey corridors with London traffic-grunt coming in through the windows, is rendered by Alfredson as a kind of totalitarian Reading Room, a soaring industrial/cerebral space in which ranks of eavesdroppers and codebreakers clack at their machines, and meetings are conducted in soundproofed cubes. It’s a chillier spy world, with wider gaps between people. The center of gravity provided in the novel by the Establishment, the clubbable Old Boys in their smotheringly furnished rooms—burgundy carpets, burgundy faces, overstuffed men in overstuffed chairs—has gone. Gone too is the heavy fellowship and ghastly heartiness, the endless belaboring of Smiley with the long syllable of his first name: Oh really, George!, George, you must see …, How’s the lovely Ann, George? Now they all communicate in leers of mutual suspicion: a Scandinavian reboot has occurred. Was the Cold War really this cold?

Oldman-as-Smiley, meanwhile, is blanker, harsher-voiced, impenetrable behind the huge reflective panels of his glasses. The wan little smile has become a grimace. Twice we accompany him in the laborious meditation of his early-morning swim in the Thames, watch him pushing pale-shouldered through the tea-colored water—to what end? We cannot possibly guess what he’s thinking. No clue! Smiley’s understatement has been overstated.

It’s very 2011, I suppose, to rub away the interpersonal texture and crank up the anomie. Didn’t the Bond franchise give it a go in 2006’s Casino Royale? Daniel Craig as a harder, icier Bond, hacking his ethically unencumbered way across a borderless post-9/11 globe … To strip down or minimalize le Carré, however, is to sacrifice the almost Tolkienesque grain and depth of his created world: the decades-long backstory, the lingo, the arcana, the liturgical repetitions of names and functions.

Read Parker's full story here.

Image: Focus Features

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Spencer Kornhaber is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers pop culture and music. He was previously an editor at and a staff writer at OC Weekly. He has written for Spin, The AV Club, and

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