Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Directed By: Tomas Alfredson
Written By: Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor, based on the novel by John le Carre
Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Ciaran Hinds, Kathy Burke, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Tom Hardy.
Director of Photography: Hoyte Van Hoytema, Editor: Dino Jonsater, Production Designer: Maria Djurkovic, Original Music: Alberto Iglesias
Rated: R for language and some brief violence.
When it comes to spies and the Cold War, especially across the pond in the United Kingdom, no name is more famous than James Bond. The Ian Fleming character is suave, sexy, dangerous, reckless, and everything the people want in their heroes. And then there’s George Smiley, the quiet and extremely reserved hero of a trilogy of novels by Britain’s other finest, John le Carré’. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Smiley never shoots a gun, much less leave the apartments he works at. He’s not particularly charismatic and women seem nonexistent to him. He’s not even part of MI6—he’s retired. But he gets the job done, and the job no one wants to take on.
Mr. le Carré’s novels are exacting and meticulous, and the latest adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy attempts a faithful preservation of the spirit of his novel. Having not read the novel, nor seen the Alec Guinness led miniseries from 1979, I went into Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with little idea how the Cold War tale would play out. Those expecting a James Bond will be severely disappointed, but it is in the details—the stern faces that rarely tell the truth, the subtle shifts in dialogue that unveil information, and the meticulous details of the environment that reveal secrets—that director Tomas Alfredson and his truly talented crafters bring to the film that reveal a number of pleasures.
Mr. Alfredson could be considered anti-genre, but it’s a little bit of a misnomer for what he does. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a spy film in the same way his last film, the Swedish vampire story Let the Right One In, is a horror film. Mr. Alfredson is certainly interested in stories that use genre elements, but he’s more attracted to isolation and character. George Smiley, played in a curiously minimalist performance by Gary Oldman, is at the top of the “Circus,” as British Intelligence as referred to, when he’s forced out along with the #1 man, Control (John Hurt). But a phone call from a haywire agent (Tom Hardy) sends him back into the maze to find a Russian double agent at the top of the Circus, the agent being one of four top men (Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, and David Dencik). Because he’s retired, Smiley can’t just walk right in with a gun and start torturing people ala Jack Bauer. Instead, he works in the shadows, drooling over papers and meeting with those who have also been marginalized out, while using a young agent (the dashing and constantly compelling Bennet Cumberbatch) to do the dirty work.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy resembles less of a spy film that it does the twisting narrative of Raul Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon. This is a film essentially about stories and events of the past, and how the small pieces can add up to devastating results. Smiley doesn’t just listen to stories of the past that only deepen the mystery, he watches people as well, looking for their hints toward truth at any point, while constantly revisiting his own past for details as well. The dialogue plays like a more restrained version of a Mamet-insider drama, as the film never gives us a look from the outside, using code that confound on a first watch.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a period film, but its one that’s ironically rich, as production designer Maria Djurkovic and director of photography Hoyte Van Hoyema (who also shot Let the Right One In) every shade of brown and gray possible, letting the viewer pick up the outlying along the way (one of the great revealing shots in the film is a pair of red socks in unlaced shoes). Background details hide the foreground of the spies, who may be out of the game but still have every reason to hide themselves.
And because they must hide themselves, the performances are equally restrained. Toned down and hollowed from almost all emotion, Mr. Alfredson reigns in his characters in the way Stanley Kubrick ever did; every line feels double sided, and any hint at anger, fear, or excitement a tell. None is better than Mr. Oldman, doing a complete reversal of his bombastic self we’ve seen in films like The Professional or Sid and Nancy. Hiding behind large-framed glasses and speaking not so much of a soft tongue than an absent one, Mr. Oldman constantly hides himself within the frame, shrinking into a ghost of a man as he hunts the turned agent. In the middle of the film, he delivers a monologue about a Russian agent he tried to turn; it is his most wordy scene, but it’s the subtle physicality of Mr. Oldman, as you see him relive the moment that shows his nuance for this type of role.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s greatest fault may be that it is tied to its spy narrative. There is a mystery to solve at the heart of it, but Mr. Alfredson never lets us become detectives ourselves. The four culprits are painted too broadly to make an impression beyond the sinister things they may up to. When the reveal finally comes, it’s less of a shock than a shrug, and certain metatexual elements do somewhat give the reveal away. But the process is at least fascinating—when Mr. Alfredson does employ the moments of “genre” we’re used to, such in a rendezvous in a café or an assignment to steal a set of documents from the agency, he shows he can do thrills just like the rest of them, and more spine-tingly as well.
In the opening credits, the score by Alberto Igelsias plays for a melancholy nostalgia theme not too far removed from Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic score for Chinatown. In a way, that film, its brutal revision of nostalgia for a simpler time is an important key for understanding Smiley. When talking to another former spy (Kathy Burke) who speaks lovingly of the earlier days, Smiley reminds her, “It was the war.” Smiley seems to take no pleasure in his process, but why? Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s winding narrative is almost impossible to follow, but that shifts our focus from the details and eccentricities of the plot to Smiley himself. Here’s a lone wolf, hiding behind the shadows, who has both everything and nothing to hide.