In Terry Gilliam's Brazil the bureaucrats of the police state watch the Marx Brothers' film Cocoanuts on their little steampunk screens in between processing rendition for torture. In the new film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy two agents at either end of a phone line, and the bored operative who transcribes their conversation, are all listening to 'Mr Wu's a Window Cleaner Now' by George Formby on BBC Radio 2. We hear the song in all three locations, and the phone-tapper sings along to it. I don't know whether that's in the book, but I think it's a great scene. I can hardly say in words what it signifies, but I think it's very important in the context of this film. Something about how culture unites what power separates. I've thought of a third film which uses the same trick: Das Leben Der Anderen where art intrudes on surveillance, in an otherwise bleak and comfortless life.
I have not read the book this film is based on, or seen the 1970s TV series with Alec Guinness. At first I thought that only someone familiar with these sources would be able to follow this elliptical film. However, I relaxed into it, and it was soon possible to understand what was happening. There were some clever tricks to help you - the main protagonist Smiley buys new glasses at the start of the main time-sequence, so you can immediately tell you are seeing a flashback from looking at his face.
There are two things happening in the film. One is the plot - who is the mole in the British Intelligence Service? I suspect this has been massively over-simplified in adapting it down to a couple of hours, and I felt the pivotal scene where Smiley convinces a key character of his theory was not explained. But something has to be lost, of course. In general I felt the plot-logic held together, perhaps a little wobbly in places.
The other thing that is happening in this film is the evocation of an era, in this case the mid 1970s. And with that evocation, the feeling of physical existence, the difference between comfort and discomfort, each as interesting as the other, the lovely texture of unglamorous things.
Perhaps a third theme in the film is the alienation between men and women. I was nostalgic to see an agent walk (several times) past a graffiti which read 'The Future is Female'. That was our slogan - I had a lapel badge that said that. It expresses an utopian ideal which was not realised.