|Not as fancy as Dracula, but still rather fancy. Rather fancy indeed.|
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a film you’ll like better if you let go of the cinematic version of the spy we’ve come to know and love here in America. When we think spy, we think Sean Connery strapping a jet pack on his back or Tom Cruise leaping off buildings and crashing through windows. We don’t see much of real spies because, well, they wouldn’t be very good at their jobs if we did.
The novels of John le Carre often take a much more restrained view of what spies are and do. Mr. Bond and Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne would be out of place here. These are stories filled with men in suits, sitting in offices reading files, speaking several languages by phone, and occasionally taking a shadowy meetup with a representative from a foreign government. Spy novels rose to prominence in the Cold War era, but le Carre was one of the few authors who really depicted the work of spies for what it most often is: cold.
With that in mind, it would have been easy for director Tomas Alfredson to make a polished but unfeeling procedural film out of this story. There are no car chases in Tinker, Tailor, only one incident of real violence, and very few gorgeous women waiting for the film’s heroes in casinos and five-star hotels. It’s a story without glamour or any real passion, but Alfredson rises above all of that by permeating his film with a constant intensity that rises and falls with the beats of the plot. He lets a stellar cast do the rest, and the result is a truly excellent spy film.
In early ‘70s Britain, tensions are mounting in the intelligence service, known to its operatives as “The Circus.” The organization’s aging leader, Control (John Hurt) believes that one of his agents is a Russian mole, and sends a trusted operative (Mark Strong) to Hungary to ferret out some information. The mission goes wrong, and Control and his right hand man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman) are forced out of the service. The leadership void is quickly filled by Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), who heads the Russian spying project that Control was convinced housed the mole.
A year later Control is dead after a long illness, and Smiley is living quietly in retirement until he’s approached by the government secretary presiding over the intelligence committee (Oliver Lacon) and asked to determine once and for all if Control’s mole was real, and if so, who it is.
The rest of the film is a labyrinth of secrets and whispers as Smiley – with the help of a loyal spy within The Circus (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a frightened operative on the run (Tom Hardy) – tries to narrow down the possibilities of Control’s theory and determine which of the men inside The Circus is a traitor. We are led to believe it could be one of four highly placed men: Alleline himself, codename “Tinker”, Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), codename “Tailor,” Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), codename “Soldier” and Toby Esterhase (David Denick), codename “Poorman.”
The first thing I noticed about this film is that it’s not in a hurry. Spy thrillers are generally designed to move forward at breakneck pace, punctuated by chases across rooftops and barely plausible sex scenes. Tinker, Tailor is not a long film, but it is a patient one, using its two hour run time to explore every corner of Smiley’s world, from his marital troubles to his morning swim. It grants us a familiarity we don’t normally have with our movie spies. We feel we know George Smiley, as well as anyone really can, and the web that he’s willingly diving into suddenly becomes our web too.
The second thing I noticed was Alfredson’s continued mastery of light. His Swedish vampire film, Let the Right One In, was a gorgeous playground of fluorescent and halogen contrasts, and with Tinker, Tailor he shines yet again, creating a sumptuous neo-noir palette of shadows, shady rooms and dark alleyways.
But the center of the film, the heart, the thing that will keep spy lovers coming back over and over again, is Oldman. He is one of the finest actors in the world, noted for his ability to disappear completely into a character, and this time he affirms it perhaps more than ever with what’s probably the most subtle performance of his career. George Smiley is an extremely intelligent, worldly man, but he’s not a flashy man. He’s not an angry man or a sensual man or a cool man. There’s no gimmick for Oldman to latch on to. And yet he makes every scene completely fascinating. He owns the movie, and in a film alongside wonderful performances by Firth, Jones, Hurt, Cumberbatch, Strong and Hardy, that’s really saying something.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy might not be what we’ve come to expect from spy films, but it is what we deserve. It’s a film that relies not on action or gadgets or explosions to get its point across, but on solid storytelling, gorgeous photography and some of the best actors alive. If you give this film the patience and concentration is deserves, you will be rewarded, and you’ll only want to take another trip into le Carre’s dark little world.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is available everywhere on DVD and Blu-Ray.