No gadgets, guns or trophy girl in sight – John le Carré’s spy universe is stripped of glamour, but all the more fascinating for his intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the inner circle that fought for nebulous ground in the Cold War.

The film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, released in 2011 and available on DVD at the Whitehorse Public Library, is based on the novel of the same name, the first in le Carre’s trilogy about George Smiley’s hunt for Karla, a Soviet spymaster.  

In early 1970s Britain, Control (John Hurt), the head of the agency referred to as the Circus (le Carre’s version of Britain’s military intelligence agency MI5), sends one of his men, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), on a covert mission to Budapest. Things go wrong and Prideaux is shot and presumed dead.  

In the aftermath of the international scandal, Control is exiled from the Circus, taking George Smiley (Gary Oldman), his mild-mannered right-hand man, with him into an unwelcome early retirement.

But word comes to a government official that there’s a mole – a spy – in place at the Circus and he brings Smiley in to investigate.

It’s a tricky operation, confined to Smiley and the only two people he can trust, Peter Guilliam (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Mendel, a jack-of-all-tradecraft.

Smiley is following in the path of Control, who had dubbed the main suspects as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Poorman and Beggarman. Smiley knows them well: they’re members of the team he worked with at the Circus. One of them, Beggarman, is himself.

The adapted screenplay, by Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor, carves a streamlined narrative from the novel’s plot for the film. Some of le Carré’s twists and turns are lost, while the emotional costs of living in subterfuge come into focus; trapped in solitary lives, the characters are only able to trust each other – except that maybe they shouldn’t.

“I do not want to end up like you lot,” says Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), wistfully contemplating his vanishing options.

Tarr is the source of the devastating revelation that sets Smiley on his search. Like Prideaux – who turns up alive but put out to pasture by the Circus – Tarr is caught in the middle of the fallout from betrayal of the mole inside the Circus.

“I’m innocent. Within reason,” he says.

That same ambivalence is present in Smiley. “Don’t you think it’s time to recognize there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine?” he says wearily to Karla in their one and only meeting, seen in flashback.

Yet those reservations don’t prevent him from doing whatever it takes to protect the Circus, if not the Circus workers.

Director Tomas Alfredson creates a unique visual signature for the film that’s appropriate to the early 1970s period, using a specific colour palette and other motifs.

Those period details aren’t overworked, but it’s fun to see high international intrigue unfold through acres of paper files, surreptitious calls placed via rotary telephones, and George Formby on the radio.