A rare type of modern spy thriller, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is more interested in looks, pauses and intricate story machinations than guns and explosions. Mainstream audiences need not apply; this is the type of picture best consumed by more mature filmgoers who possess the sort of patience and attention that viewers can rarely be relied upon to bring to a cinema these days. However, despite gorgeous visuals, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy proceeds through its knotted scheme of espionage and secrets with a sense of utmost perplexity, ensuring you’ll never be certain about what’s happening even if you’re able to grapple with the events and stakes of isolated set-pieces. It’s intelligent and complex yet at times dramatically dry and detached.
When British Intelligence commander Control (Hurt) learns that a Hungarian general is willing to sell classified information, agent Jim Prideaux (Strong) is dispatched to Budapest to investigate. Prideaux is promptly shot, though, and, in the aftermath, Control is forced into retirement. In ensuing months, word reaches civil servant Oliver Lacon (McBurney) that there’s a long-term mole in the “Circus” (i.e. the British Intelligence agency). To investigate, he pulls George Smiley (Oldman) out of forced retirement. As Smiley monitors the actions of the Circus’ top men, he finds a reliable man in Peter Guillam (Cumberbatch), and becomes intertwined with fringe player Ricki Tarr (Hardy) who has valuable information about the mole that he’ll trade for protection.
John le Carré’s labyrinthine source novel of the same name has been adapted before. In 1979, an acclaimed BBC miniseries based on the novel was produced, which had the luxury of 7 episodes and over 350 minutes of screen-time to sort through the intricate arrangement of scrutiny and suspicions. For 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, on the other hand, screenwriters Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor had to compress the narrative complexities into a 120-minute timeframe. The resulting picture is successful in capturing the novel’s spirit and sense of paranoia, yet it’s too truncated and difficult to follow (there are even poorly-delineated jumps in the timeline), leaving us with little to do but try to absorb the dialogue as we endeavour to grasp the bigger picture beyond the intricacies of individual scenes. It’s laudable for filmmakers in the 21st Century to handle a conventional plot in an unconventional fashion, yet only occasionally does the material’s density translate to enthralling cinema – it often lacks the sense of tension and emotional attachment that’s pivotal to entice viewers to decode all of the sophistication. Ultimately, what we’re left with is a few riveting vignettes and a few tedious segments which have not been effectively tied together to produce something overly rewarding.
Director Tomas Alfredson emerged on critics’ radars with his Swedish masterpiece Let the Right One In back in 2008. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is Alfredson’s English-language debut, and it’s an immaculately-detailed, atmospheric piece of work that effortlessly summons the time and place of Europe in the 1970s. This is the type of motion picture which primarily concerns itself with mood and character, resulting in a true “slice of life” depiction of this era, as if Alfredson and his crew got in a time capsule and filmed actual secret agents at work. Yet, the movie still feels a bit too dry and impassive. Finding out the identity of the mole does not carry as much urgency as it should have, nor does it provide much momentum. It’s all a bit blah. While Alfredson may have been an ideal choice in theory to helm the film, perhaps the director’s inexperience in English-language features is to blame for the picture’s occasional desiccation.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy‘s largest asset is easily the cast, which contains a handful of renowned British actors. Leading the pack is Gary Oldman, whose reserved but confident demeanour is an ideal fit for George Smiley. Oldman constantly submits top-notch work, yet his performance here easily ranks as one of his best; he disappears into the role of Smiley and makes us believe every utterance. Meanwhile, Colin Firth (who was recently awarded a well-earned Oscar for The King’s Speech) is excellent, conveying a myriad of internal nuances with aplomb (aspects of his work are ripe for interpretation). Also terrific are Tom Hardy (Warrior) and Benedict Cumberbatch (BBC’s Sherlock) as Ricki Tarr and Peter Guillam (respectively). In supporting roles you’ll also find John Hurt, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Ciarán Hinds, Stephen Graham and Simon McBurney, who do their utmost to try and maintain our interest during the convoluted narrative. The acting across the board is sublime.
Admittedly, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does improve on repeat viewings, as you’ll have the chance to decipher the film’s intricacies with the story’s ultimate trajectory at the back of your mind. Like most Oscar bait, this is a film which is happy to be appreciated rather than enjoyed. It’s not that Alfredson and co. should have dumbed down the source material to include guns and action; it’s that viewers are asked to do too much homework to compensate for the massive narrative condensation.