Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Directed by: Tomas Alfredson
Written by: Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan (screenplay), John le Carré (novel)
Starring: Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth and John Hurt
If you’re not prepared to donate every ounce of your attention to this film, then do not bother watching it. Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of the twistiest films to come along in years.
Like he did in adapting the vampire thriller Let the Right One In, though, he takes those narrative thrills and restrains them within his deliberately arranged frames until the tension boils over. There is only one “action” sequence in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and it’s the rather clumsily constructed assassination of a spy (Mark Strong) sent to Hungary to find out the identity of a mole within MI6 (the British equivalent of the CIA).
Alfredson makes the mistake of using the same deliberate, plodding tone as the rest of the film in this action sequence, but its clumsiness shows just how gifted he is at directing the rest of it. Working from a dense, take-no-prisoners screenplay by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, he weaves a spy thriller where literally every character is a plausible suspect and answers are often revealed in a glance.
As if that weren’t enough, bountiful flashbacks are added in, where those same gestures also reveal suspicious character interactions and hidden agendas. Anchoring all of this intrigue together is George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a man who chooses his words more carefully than he does his allies, which is saying something. Oldman delivers a restrained but brilliant performance as this man, who is taken out of forced retirement to find the mole within the agency.
John le Carré’s hit novel was also adapted into a TV miniseries in the late 70s, and the task of cramming it into a feature length film must have been vast. Alfredson creates a darkly beautiful cinematic tone to go with the expansive narrative, though, encasing this early 70s world with a mahogany veneer and a paranoia that is distinctly Cold War.
That mole at the top of MI6 is of course a Russian spy, and Smiley is tasked with weeding him out from four distinct agents, played by the venerable likes of Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds and David Dencik. Accompanying Smiley is a shaky junior agent and later the man who started this manhunt, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy).
Ricki made the stupid mistake of falling in love with the wife of a connected Russian man, who told him about the mole right before she was whisked away by their spies. His involvement in the case is purely to retrieve her, though Smiley doesn’t let on that she’s been murdered. Hardy comes late to the proceedings, but his emotional attachment to the case go well with Oldman’s restrained distance.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy‘s numerous twists and deliberate pace are a very welcome change of pace from the bloated, sloppily constructed thrillers like the second Sherlock Holmes. Though repeated viewings may be required to piece together the entirety of this investigation, all of the answers are there, and the film is entertaining enough to reward a repeat viewing. Restraint and the ability to never fully reveal one’s hand is something that Alfredson shares with these white collar spies.
These spies and their trench coats, slicked back hair and puffs of smoke create a portrait of an organization stuck in its ways, accentuated by the numerous instances of sex or intense affection taking place in the background of shots. It creates an atmosphere of dread that is distinctly 1950s, but it takes place amid the intersection of that decade’s paranoia and the sexual revolution.
Sex takes a noticeable backseat in this film, though, suggesting that personal and political have not yet found a way to co-exist. This is extenuated later in a thrilling conversation that Smiley shares with the mole, who seduced his then-girlfriend so that Smiley wouldn’t be able to see him clearly. Like J. Edgar, sex becomes a tool of exploitation and manipulation, though its absence from the foreground makes them the furthest thing from exploitation films.
What makes Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy work is the effortless way that these extremely talented actors set aside ego and showmanship in favor of serving the fantastic writing and directing. It’s trickier than many modern films to navigate, but, unlike many of those films, it’s worth the effort.