Just back from seeing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

The good news is that it is pretty faithful to the original story, cramming a lot into the film while maintaining moody and sometimes tense mystery.

The bad news is that it is pretty faithful to the book in having a feeble explanation of the reasons for the Mole’s treason. In fact it’s even feebler than the book’s version which also has some facile anti-Americanising: " It’s an aesthetic choice – the West has got ugly".

Aesthetic? Ugly??

Compared to the way of life behind the Iron Curtain?!

Which, by the way, is portrayed in a stupidly unconvincing way. All the vintage commie cars wheeled out for the Hungarian scenes are … sparkling clean!

Let’s also draw an embarrassed veil over the open plan office space at the Circus, some of the fatuous dialogue among the top Circus folk (written specially for the film by Le Carre himself, as one review mentions?), and the clueless use of security cupboard combination locks.

And what’s with British MI6 staff are shown singing the Soviet anthem lustily at a Christmas party with Santa Lenin(!), or the senior FCO Under-Secretary eating crisp toast in his office? Are the people who made this film insane?

What’s the clever heart of the story? Rather like the theme of Lord of the Rings: if you want to hide something preciousss from the enemy, take it towards him.

Remember the Russian sleepers unmasked by the FBI (whom assorted liberals jeered were ‘nothing special’ or ‘clueless bumblers infiltrating the local PTA’?). Part of the key point there was that the point of spying is not to get any specific piece of vital information (although anything is better than nothing). The jackpot is when you manage to get a flow of Top Secret information.

How to achieve that? Very difficult. Sleepers can help in all sorts of ways. But they need to be really deeply buried for years on end to avoid any suspicion.

So stealing or copying the odd document is one thing – doing it regularly or to order is quite another. In TTSS the plot revolves round a fiendishly simple Soviet plan to create a cover for getting information from the British Mole as it were in broad daylight – under cover of giving the Brits a supply of top secret Soviet information! 

To make this work various layers of deception have to be laid on top, and some real but not important secret Soviet information has to be handed over to the British side along the way to get the silly Brits ‘hooked’ on the idea, but that is the nub of it. Hence once the scheme has been rumbled the way ahead is easy: to unmask the Mole a panic message about a possible British Mole needs to be fed in to the Circus top brass, and then see who jumps to alert the Sovs…

The film’s main storyline weakness is that the four key suspects are seen as if from a far distance. You have no idea what their Circus jobs are or why they are important or what they are like, or indeed why they might be suspect.

The wider failure of all the Le Carre spy books is also on display here: the reek of moral relativism ("we’re almost as bad as each other") and lack of any significant substantive beliefs. By shrinking the world down to the mutual manoeuvrings of the rival spy agencies and their messy private lives, all context and purpose drain away – just as in the Godfather films the wider victims of the mafia families’ wickedness are never shown. If all you see is presented as ugly, why indeed be loyal to such an ugly world?


It is all elegantly done and beautifully acted in an evocatively gloomy twilight way, with assorted clumsy 1970s product placements including Harp beer cans and Trebor mints in a tube colour/design which I don’t remember.

Great packaging – but around a dark, banal hole. The latter described relentlessly and in lots of accurate detail by Peter Hitchens.