The cinematic creativity well must have run bone-dry, which is the only possible way of explaining why a new version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is now on the big screen. The John le Carré novel has already been the subject of a peerless adaptation – the 1979 BBC television production starring Alec Guinness as intelligence investigator George Smiley. The beauty of that classic version was its depth and scope: le Carré’s complex espionage plot was allowed to carefully unfold across the vast spectrum of a seven-episode mini-series format.
In this version, director Tomas Alfredson has telescoped the original text into a ridiculously compact two-hour version that seems like a Cliff Notes overview of the fabled le Carré novel. The hunt for a mole in the upper echelon of Cold War-era British intelligence drives the plot, but Alfredson and screenwriters Bridge O’Connor and Peter Straughan have diluted the material so drastically that le Carré’s extraordinary work is reduced to a dreary and incomprehensible shadow.
Gary Oldman takes over the George Smiley role in one of the weirdest performances of the year. Buried underneath a waxy make-up job that gives the impression of an embalmed corpse barely returned to life, Oldman walks through the film with such indifference and detachment that it seems even he realizes this was a bad career choice. Oldman also appears to be channeling Guinness’ distinctive speaking voice for his line readings – perhaps to remind us that a better version of the material is still available for viewing.
There are some distractions that save this enterprise from fatal ennui. Veteran hams John Hurt, Colin Firth and Toby Jones crunch enough scenery to keep viewers awake, and there are a few examples of amateurish CGI effects (including a bizarre moment with a bird flying around a classroom) that could bring happy grimaces to the lips of die-hard computer geeks. But for the most part, the real mystery surrounding “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is trying to wonder how these creative artists could have pursued this project without pausing to recognize the mess they were making.