I went into "Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy" with a humorless mood. This was embarrassing because it was sure to share my grim view. On my way out the door, my brother read me this quip from a review: "it’s a movie of chain smokers and whisperers, of grey skies and glum expressions, of rattling tea cups and rotary-dialed telephones," which once inside the theater gave me an uncomfortable sense of being in colusion with the movie. I was glum; it was glum. In an absurd flight of self-consciousness I imagined others rolling their eyes at me for taking this terribly serious movie so seriously.
It's so serious that even a little relief had the audience in stitches. Smiley, the retired spy who is investigating his former peers (because he has hero fantasies or because he's power hungry, take your pick) goes to talk to a woman who no longer works at The Circus, as they call the intelligence agency. It is implied that they were once romantically involved. They sit down to tea, and have a view into the kitchen where youths make out on the counter and then go upstairs. She says "I don't know about you George, but I'm feeling seriously under-fucked!"
George is not to be seen doing anything dirty, so that when we see him at the top of the Circus at the end of the movie, it's supposed to be like a coronation of the righteous king. The film dryly observes just as its spies do, so that this final cut feels as if it, too, is under scrutiny. But there's nothing behind this habitual scrutiny. The spies in this movie analyze but are not insightful, are observant but not thoughtful. One could read the camera the same way.
To give everything away, when the villain is slain, it is Colin Firth. He's shot through cleanly the cheek. The gore in this film is gratuitious, but not in the campy way. It's not fireworks in slimy red for us to marvel at, but quick and terrible. This must be a singular moment in his career, getting shot.
Rising stars, on the other hand, get another sort of glamor. I'm convinced that Benedict Cumberbach's agent insists that he wear fabulous clothes ever since the success of "Sherlock" and its resulting coat and scarf sales. As Peter he's the peacock in the Circus, strutting about in his bright blue tie and handkerchief, doing Smiley's bidding. Who, in contrast, insists upon a protective shell of drab.
There's a kind of defensive criticism in which one faults the movie for the parts one didn't understand in it. Did you understand all the dialogue in this movie? Honestly I didn't understand what was going on half the time. The music swelled menacingly and I thought "um, what are you driving at?" It's a good device to put the audience in the position of an imperfect observer, doling us out little facts as the story unfolds in both directions. But sometimes it seemed as if we were expected to have already read Le Carre's book.
Personally, I found the only fun reading of this movie was as a psychodrama of purification. The corrupt Circus, who gives information to its professed enemy, is the mess of the psyche's attachments. Smiley, somehow standing outside of this is here to perform a superegoical audit. In the end the Circus is reconnected with itself, restored as, well, an agency. Its will will once again be carried out without turning against itself. In parallel to this is the purification of Smiley's marriage. Anne, who we never see, is a contested posession between Smiley and Bill Haydon (Colin Firth). "It was nothing personal, I hope you understand," Haydon tells Smiley, "I knew that if you saw me as Anne's lover, you couldn't see me straight on. It worked, up to a point." Apparently Smiley is the perfect spy, able to overcome the compromises that emotions allegedly wreak on objectivity. In the end he and his wife are reunited. Through a doorway we see him gently touching her shoulder. Order is restored; the scapegoat for the two mirroring plotlines is one person, and he is punished. Hooray.