In my review of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I recommend that viewers read a spoiler-free synopsis of the film before watching it. Here is that synopsis.
This film revolves around a single theme: There is a mole in British Intelligence. Please note that while this synopsis is “spoiler free”, all I mean is that it doesn’t reveal the mole. The rest of the plot is explained, so read at your discretion.
So, Tinker Tailor begins in October 1973, where Control, the head of British Intelligence (A.K.A “the Circus”), sends agent Jim Prideaux to Communist Hungary to meet a Hungarian general who had promised to sell information. However, Prideaux is shot and captured by Soviet agents. Amid the international incident that follows, Control and his right-hand man George Smiley are forced into retirement. Control, already ill, dies soon afterwards.
Percy Alleline becomes the new Chief of the Circus, with Bill Hayden as his deputy and Roy Bland and Toby Esterhase as close allies. They have been successful lately in getting high-grade Soviet intelligence material from a project of theirs called “Witchcraft”. Control and Smiley had distrusted this project. Witchcraft material is being shared with the Americans, in exchange for valuable US intelligence.
Smiley is brought out of retirement by Oliver Lacon, the civil servant in charge of intelligence, to investigate the claim by Ricki Tarr, an MI6 employee, that there has been a long-term mole in a senior role in British Intelligence. Control had held this suspicion as well. Working outside of the Circus, Smiley chooses a few men and begins to interview people who left the Circus about the same time as he and Control did.
One is Conni Sachs, who had been sacked by Alleline after claiming that Alexei Polyakov, a Soviet cultural attaché (diplomat) in London, is a Soviet mole-handler. Another is Jerry Westerby, who had been duty clerk on the night Prideaux was shot. Westerby says that on that night he called Smiley’s house for instructions, but Ann, Smiley’s wife, had answered. Shortly after, Haydon arrived at the Circus and said that he saw the news on the tickertape at his club. Smiley realises that Haydon must have heard the news from Ann, with whom he was having an affair.
Smiley comes home and finds Tarr hiding there. Tarr tells him that he had been sent to Istanbul to investigate a Soviet agent named Boris. Tarr found that Boris had no significance, but that Boris’s wife Irina was also an operative and seemed to have information. So Tarr overstayed in Istanbul and started having an affair with Irina to gain her trust. Irina, however, knew who Tarr was, and asked to trade the information, the fact that a mole sent by a Soviet spymaster named Karla exists in the top ranks of the Circus, for a new life in the West.
Tarr sent Irina’s request back to London, but the reply did not come for several hours. The reply ignored Irina’s request and said to come home immediately. Then, Boris, and also the British agent who was station chief in Istanbul, were both suddenly killed. Tarr saw Irina captured and being taken back to Russia. Tarr was subsequently accused of defecting and of murdering the British station chief, so he went on the run.
Smiley tells Peter Guillam, an officer at the Circus but who is working directly for Smiley, to steal the Circus logbook for that night Tarr called: he finds the pages for that night are cut out, suggesting that Tarr’s story is true.
Smiley finds Prideaux, who was returned by the Russians but sacked from the service. Prideaux reveals that the specific purpose of the Hungary mission was to get the name of the mole. Control had codenamed the suspects “Tinker” (Alleline), “Tailor” (Haydon), “Soldier” (Bland), “Poorman” (Esterhase) and “Beggarman” (Smiley himself). Prideaux tells how he was brutally interrogated and gave in, and also how he saw a blonde female prisoner being shot in front of him (it was Irina). However, says Prideaux, the Soviets already knew of Control’s investigation into the mole, and were only interested in finding out how far that investigation had progressed.
Smiley learns that Alleline, Haydon, Bland, and Esterhase have been regularly meeting Polyakov – the Project Witchcraft source – at a safe house to get material. At every meeting these men give Polyakov low-grade British material to help him maintain his cover with the Soviets, but one of these men, the mole, is actually handing over high-grade material, including material obtained from the Americans. The truth is, however, that Polyakov is loyal to the Soviets, and his job is to handle the mole. The Witchcraft material is mostly “chicken feed”, with just enough “glitter” to persuade the Americans to share information with the British.
Smiley gets the safe house’s location by threatening to deport Esterhase, who was formerly Hungarian and remains a wanted criminal there. Smiley then sets a trap by having Tarr appear at the Paris office announcing he knows who the mole is and is ready to give the name. The mole hears this, and immediately arranges with Polyakov to meet at the safe house to ask the Soviets to kill Tarr. Smiley waits at the safe house, where he captures the mole.
And that’s as far as our synopsis goes, folks.
Please do read my review of the film, and if you liked the sound of it, give it a chance.