I was not alone in the crowds the other night exiting Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy wondering what it the heck we had missed.  The consensus was that you had to have read the novel to make head or tail of it.  Well, maybe we could make the tail out, but not the head.  The alternative was to think we were too dumb to pick up the cues, clues, asides, visuals and all else that a movie is supposed to supply.  And leaving an audience thinking it is too dumb to understand is not a sure way to cinematic success.

The essential problem I suppose is that John Le Carre novels are not simple whodunits. There are always enough traps within traps, false leads, red herrings and smoke and mirrors to keep your head spinning, even at a leisurely lets-read-that-again pace.  Packing this into a movie, with its own genre requirements for fast action and ratcheting tension, is a serious problem.  Not that it can’t  be done, but this one misses; the packing job isn’t up to the mark.

The film started out with the story being told before and under the titles.  Lots of stuff is happening, not much of it related.  As I hadn’t read the novel I hadn’t a clue as to who was appearing, one after the other, or what they meant to one another.   I didn’t get a sense of coherence until well into the movie when Smiley walks into his apartment and finds Ricki Tarr, another spook, with a tale to tell that sets the mystery straight, and the sleuthing begins.

I’m glad to have a Euro version of a major British spy novel, and with a Swedish director. On the whole I like the throttled back versions of thrillers I’ve seen from the continent; they depend less on buckets of blood than their American counterparts. ( Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s 1997 version of Insomnia was more to my taste than Chrisotpher Nolan’s 2002.)   In this case, though, I just didn’t get it.  Who was who; who was sleeping with whom, and why did it matter?  Was it a clue, or a diversion?  Who was Karla anyway?  What were the dark rooms with listening devices?  In fact, too often, I couldn’t figure out what time-frame we were in: the dark present, or the dark past.

I’ll admit I have a touch of prosopognosia: my facial recognition is not a strong as my wife’s, though it’s not all that bad.  But without some redundancy of signs, I was often at a loss.   I knew I’d seen fellow X but in what context, with whom, and doing what?  An accidental sighting of a passionate embrace at a Christmas party; no faces seen.  Smiley looks stricken.  Why?  Is it his wife?  How are we supposed to know?  And if so, what does it have to do with the plot?

It sort of ruined the thrill for me to keep feeling I was dumb.

I don’t know whether it was the screen play, the directing or production imposed cuts. Perhaps they were all so familiar with the story they couldn’t imagine what we innocents didn’t know.   I suspect the editing pared down the scenes too much, and juxtaposed too quickly.  A re-cut to set up the players a little more memorably, a few better cues as to whether a cut from one scene to the next  took us back into  a memory, or into another character’s scene same time-frame and a good tight thriller could be had.  The acting was very good; the set design great. Enjoyed the views of Budapest and Istanbul.  But who did what to whom?  What in the heck was the brought-back-from-the dead spy doing living in a trailer outside the school he was teaching at, and why on earth did he suddenly turn against the sad little kid he’d befriended?

I don’t mean you shouldn’t go.  Just bone up on the plot and characters before you do: IMDB, or focusfeatures, or  Wikipedia, or here

Then the puzzle pieces will be somewhat familiar and you’ll enjoy.