This article is about the 2011 movie by the name Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and not the BBC series or the book. The film is directed by Tomas Alfredson who also brought us Let The Right One In. There is a very strong star cast featuring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Ciarán Hinds. It is a classic Spy vs Spy story set during the Cold War of the 70s. There is a lot that can be talked about the acting and the execution contrast between the BBC series and the book. However, to keep things simple, I’m going to stick to what the movie presents and not go into additional information from other material. In short, it’s a great film. Go watch it before reading further. This is the film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy explained, spoilers Ahead.
I understand why I received multiple requests to explain out this film. It’s not the plot itself that is confusing but the narrative that is extremely non-linear, doesn’t give many hints to point out the sequence of events. So as always, we’ll go through the events chronologically even though that destroys the fantastic narrative.
The two main characters we should know about are George Smiley (Gary Oldman) and Karla (not really shown). Smiley is a senior official in the British Intelligence (referred to as The Circus). Karla is a Soviet Intelligence Officer. A long while back, when Moscow Center was in pieces, Smiley was traveling around the world convincing Soviet agents to convert to the British side. One such person Smiley had met in Delhi was Karla. Karla was on his way back to Russia. Since he was compromised, they were pretty sure Karla was going to be executed upon reaching Russia. Smiley tries to talk Karla into changing sides. He makes the mistake of harping on saving Karla’s wife which reflects upon Smiley’s own issues with his wife Ann. Moreover, Smiley hands Karla a box of cigarettes and his lighter. The lighter reads “To George from Ann, All my love”. Karla turns out to be a fanatic and he returns back to die. Karla returns the box of cigarettes but keeps the lighter.
Karla is not executed. Years pass. He grows in rank to become a Soviet spymaster.
Let’s take a quick look at the British Intelligence, The Circus:
Control (John Hurt) – The head.
George Smiley (Gary Oldman) – Right-hand man to Control. Codename Beggarman.
Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) – A senior lieutenant. Codename Tinker.
Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) – A senior lieutenant, and the Soviet mole. Codename Tailor.
Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) – A senior lieutenant. Codename Soldier.
Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) – A senior lieutenant. Codename Poorman.
Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) – Trusted right-hand man of Smiley.
Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) – A scalphunter (assassin).
Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) – A scalphunter (assassin), reports to Peter Guillam.
Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke) – Research Agent. A close friend of Smiley’s.
Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) – Cabinet Officer overseeing the British Intelligence.
Bill Haydon and the situation with Ann
Now, over time Bill has started feeling that the British Intelligence has become ugly and he picks the Soviet side. He becomes Karla’s mole. Karla knows about the unreciprocated love that Smiley has for his wife, Ann. He learns this from his conversation with Smiley in Delhi. Karla uses the information to get Bill to seduce Ann. Bill ends up having an affair with Ann, visibly. This is done intentionally so that Smiley’s judgment is clouded. Karla knows that Smiley is very good and would most likely find out that Bill is the mole. The affair would ensure that Smiley wouldn’t see Bill straight. Now, all of this is revealed only at the end of the film. We are shown a quick scene at a party where Ann is looking on flirtatiously towards Bill. Later, Ann and Bill are shown to be making out outside and Smiley is shocked to see this. We aren’t shown who Ann is with but Bill would be the logical conclusion.
Bill Haydon and the situation with Jim Prideaux
While nothing is stated, there is a hint that Bill and Jim are possible lovers. We are shown a repeated photo of Bill and Jim which Bill puts inside his pocket. Also, at the same party where Bill seduces Ann, we are shown Bill initially approach Jim and they both exchange engaging glances. But he proceeds to go meet Ann. In any case, Bill and Jim, in the least, are very good friends.
Witchcraft – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Poorman, and Spy
Alleline has developed a Soviet contact by the name Polyakov. In the public eye, Polyakov is a cultural attaché. They regularly meet him at a secret address where they exchange intel. This is Operation Witchcraft. Here’s the catch. Alleline thinks that Polyakov is their mole who fetches them high-grade Soviet intel in exchange for some low-grade British intel (just to keep his cover). But in reality, the Soviet intel he’s providing is actually low-grade. What he is gunning to take back is some really high-grade American intel which can be provided to him by Bill in secret. The low-grade intel from Polyakov is just good enough for CIA to share their intel with the British. Alleline talks to the minister, bypassing, Control and gets permission to keep his source a secret. The people who have access to Operation Witchcraft are – Percy Alleline, Roy Bland, Toby Esterhase and Bill Haydon. They also begin getting American intel which Bill begins passing back to Karla via Polyakov. Control is furious that they bypassed him and is suspicious of Operation Witchcraft. He figures there is a mole inside The Circus.
Irina and Ricky Tarr
Peter Guillam sends Ricky on an assignment to Istanbul to check out a Russian trade delegate. Ricky is to track and assess him to see if he might be persuaded to defect. He eventually finds out that this Russian, Boris, was no delegate. He too was a scalphunter. Ricky is with another agent by the name Tufty who has set up communications. Ricky is about to leave back but happens to notice that Boris has a wife. Ricky’s instincts tell him that this woman, Irina, might have some information. He meets with her posing as a businessman. But Irina seems to know that Ricky is British Intelligence and she tells him that she has information on the mole. She’s willing to trade it for a new life in the West. Ricky reaches out to the Circus with this information. He doesn’t get much of a response. He just gets a “We read you”. This happened because Bill intercepts the message and discards it. He notifies the Soviets. The Soviets soon kill Boris and take Irina captive. They also kill Tufty to frame Ricky. Ricky realizes this happening because of the mole. He makes a run for it and goes into hiding.
Jim and Budapest
The movie begins with Control meeting with Jim and asking him to go to Budapest to meet a Hungarian general who claims to have the name of the mole in the British Intelligence. Control has narrowed it down to one of the five – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Poorman, and Beggarman. These are the codenames Control has come up with to identify who the mole is. It’s not shown but Jim tells Bill about the mole in spite of Control’s warning. Bill, being the mole, sacrifices Jim at the cost of his own exposure. Things go sour at Budapest and Jim is shot. While the audience is made to believe he’s dead, he’s just wounded and is taken captive by the Soviets. They keep him in custody and torture him to get information out. Weeks or maybe months go by. Jim holds on to ensure his network in Hungary get out and then tells everything. But in the meanwhile, Bill ensures that Jim’s network’s cover is blown. The information that is circulated is that Jim did it to save his own skin. Then Karla shows up to interrogate Jim. All they ask Jim is to what extent Control is investigating the presence of the mole. They bring in Irina and ask if Jim knows her. He says no and they shoot and kill her. The Soviets know that Irina was in touch with a British scalphunter, they do this to confirm if that was Jim. Given he doesn’t react at all, they probably confirm that it wasn’t him.
Bill, in secret, makes a deal with Karla to have Jim released and sent back to England. In the debriefing, Jim is met by Toby Esterhase and is told to forget about “Tinker, Tailor and the rest”. Jim is given some money (£1,000) and moved out to become a teacher. Jim has his doubts on how Toby Esterhase knows about the code names as that was known only to Control. Jim drops everything and lives out his life as a teacher.
Control and Smiley Step Down
Let’s rewind back a few months. Soon as Jim gets taken down in Budapest, there is chaos. At this moment, Smiley is in Germany. Jerry Westerby (Stephen Graham), an officer in charge of communication with Jim, runs to Control stating Jim was shot. Control doesn’t react. Jerry follows protocol and reaches out to Smiley, just in case he was back from Germany. Ann picks up, he gives her the news. Bill happens to be at the house with Ann. She tells him and he gets to the office. Bill has set up Jim and is expecting this. He gets to office and “handles” the situation. Following this, Control is asked to resign. Control asks Smiley to step down along with him. Control does this because he knows Smiley is not the mole, he was in Germany when Jim was compromised. Control has a word with Oliver Lacon and tells him about the possibility of the mole and suggests that Smiley is the right person to investigate because he’s resigned and outside The Circus. After some time, Control dies. Oliver doesn’t take this seriously.
Connie Sachs’ findings
Connie Sachs, a research agent, notices that a footage in which Polyakov (in plain clothes) receives a salute. She concludes that he is not a cultural attaché but a war veteran himself. And that for some reason, he’s hiding that information. She takes his finding to Esterhase and Alleline (who is now head of The Circus). Esterhase and Alleline obvious already know this. Polyakov is their mole (or so they think). They get Connie Sachs fired and the matter is put to rest. A point to note here is that Esterhase, Alleline and Roy Bland are not moles. They are just very attached to Operation Witchcraft and want to make sure no one tampers with it. They are simply, brainlessly, doing everything to protect Polyakov.
Ricky Returns. Smiley Returns.
Ricky makes his way back to England and eventually reaches out to Oliver Lacon for help. He too tells Oliver the possibility of the mole. Oliver now realizes that this is no longer just a theory and reaches out to Smiley asking him to start his investigation. Smiley picks Peter Guillam and a trustworthy retiree by the name Mendel to join the investigation with him. Smiley learns about Operation Witchcraft and how the “contact” is being fed some low-grade British intel to ensure the channel continues to stay open. Smiley then contacts Connie and learns about her doubt on Polyakov.
Ricky meets with Smiley and tells him his story, about Irina. He wants to save her. Smiley notices the payment to Jim two months after his death. He locates and meets with Jim and hears his side of the story. He gets to know that Irina was executed in front of Jim.
Smiley instructs Peter to steal communication logs which would have recorded Ricky’s message. Smiley does this to check if that communication was indeed the truth. Smiley doesn’t tell Peter that Ricky has made contact because in case Peter is caught stealing the logs, he doesn’t want him to have the information about Ricky. Peter manages to steal the logs but before he leaves, Esterhase intercepts him and asks him to come to a meeting room. In the room, Peter is met by Percy Alleline, Roy Bland, Toby Esterhase and Bill Haydon. They ask him if he’s been contacted by Ricky. They tell him that Ricky is a rogue agent and ask Peter to come to them soon as Ricky tries to make contact. Peter leaves. When he heads back to meet Smiley, he sees Ricky. He punches Ricky in the face because he assumes that he has just stolen the logs for the sake of a rogue agent. Smiley asks for the communication date from Ricky and opens the logs to look for that date – November 20. Smiley shows Peter that the pages corresponding to those dates have been torn out. This confirms that Ricky is telling the truth and that the mole is covering up information.
Smiley and Peter have an evening of drinks and Smiley tells him about his run-in with Karla in Delhi. After that, he tells Peter to wind up everything from a security perspective. It is revealed to the audience that Peter is homosexual and for the safety of his partner breaks up with him with a heavy heart.
Smiley meets Oliver Lacon and the minister and talks with them about Operation Witchcraft. They tell Smiley that the informant is Polyakov. They explain how they get Russian intel from him. Smiley corrects them saying the real job of Polyakov is to receive information from the mole to take back to Karla. Oliver and the minister are in shock that they have been enabling this. They ask Smiley to fix the situation.
Smiley sends Ricky to Paris. Ricky wants Irina’s safety in return. Smiley already knows that she’s dead but he lies saying that he would do his utmost. Smiley then proceeds to meet Toby Esterhase and threatens him with treason. He also brings up how Toby has been unfaithful to Control. In fear, Esterhase gives up the secret address where they meet Polyakov.
In Paris, Ricky manages to hold a British intelligence agent at gunpoint to send out a message to The Circus. The message that is sent out is the exact same one he sends on November 20th. This time it’s a trap being set for the mole.
As expected, Bill heads to talk with Polyakov and instructs him to kill Ricky (because of the message). Smiley and Peter are at the address waiting for Bill and Polyakov, and Smiley holds them both at gunpoint. They are arrested and at this point it is revealed to the audience that Bill is the mole.
Bill admits to taking sides with Karla and he feels he’s made his mark. He asks Smiley to give some money to a girl and come up with a cover story. He also requests to get some money handed to a boy. We don’t know who these are. We can assume them to be love interests. It is also revealed that Jim met Bill before going to Budapest because Jim was trying to protect Bill. Jim seems to have had a suspicion that Bill was up to no good. Bill also admits that he seduced Ann as it was an instruction from Karla and a blind spot for Smiley. Bill is going to be deported to Russia but before that can happen, Jim ends up sniping and killing Bill for what he did to him. Jim lets a tear roll down his cheek, because of his love for Bill.
Percy Alleline and Roy Bland are dismissed from The Circus. Smiley takes charge as the new head. The film ends.
Please do drop a comment on bits that I may have missed.
Barry is a technologist who helps start-ups build successful products. His love for movies and production has led him to write his well-received film explanation and analysis articles to help everyone appreciate the films better. He’s regularly available for a chat conversation on his website and consults on storyboarding from time to time.
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