King, Bishop, Knight, Spy

There is a lot to love about the new film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It's beautifully directed and filled with impeccable performances. The scene in which Gary Oldman's Smiley recounts his meeting with his nemesis, Karla, is particularly stunning. The locations are wonderful and elements of the set design - a chandelier here, a fairground dragon there - make for some memorable scenes.

The film doesn't entirely avoid the perils of adapting a complex book. The first 20 minutes feel rushed as the film struggles under the weight of exposition and the closing montage is cheesy.

The script makes some inexplicable changes to the plot, few of which are an improvement. There are some inconsequential alterations: Jim Prideaux's mission takes place in Hungary, not Czechoslovakia, Ricki Tarr is sent to Istanbul, rather than Lisbon, and the Russian source is "Witchcraft" instead of "Merlin". There's no obvious reason for those changes but they don't make anything worse.

Peter Guillam, Smiley's right-hand man in Tinker Tailor…, runs MI6's 'scalphunters', the team that deals with the secret service's violent, dirty jobs. In the book he's straight but in the film he's gay. When Smiley warns him that he will be watched closely, Guillam goes home and makes his boyfriend move out. That provides a nice Hollywood opportunity to show what he is sacrificing for his work but does it make sense?

Presumably Guillam now thinks he's at risk of blackmail but given his job, surely that was a risk before? Is it possible that someone in his position could live with a man and expect nobody to notice?

More troublesome is the film's device for visualising the suspected Russian agent at MI6. The head of the service, Control, suspects one of his five key lieutenants. The film has him attach little photos of each man to chess pieces, implying that Control is having trouble remembering what his colleagues look like.

When Control briefs Prideaux he shows him the chess pieces. Each man is represented by a different piece. They need a code so that Prideaux can tell Control which man is the traitor. In this case, surely Control would choose King, Bishop, Knight, Rook and Pawn? Adding another layer by going for Tinker, Tailor, etc., just seems perverse.

Those are nitpicks, really. The only change that really irritated me - and one that significantly weakened the film - was the decision to open with Prideaux's failed mission. One of the joys of Le Carre's plot is that the precise details of the mission unfold as Smiley pursues his investigation and the film blows that in its desire to open, literally, with a bang.

This is a great film but not the masterpiece that many critics have claimed it to be.