Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not your archetypal spy movie. It’s devoid of explosions, car chases, cool gadgets and megalomaniacs with aspirations of world domination. Unlike most spy movies, most of the action, so to speak, in this deliberately slow and meticulously crafted film, does not take place in sunny exotic locations but in dreary, tobacco-stained rooms in the heart of London among boorish men in drab suits. Most significantly – its hero isn’t a dashing playboy with a penchant for fast cars, martinis and firearms but a short-statured, mild-mannered and soft-spoken loner whose wife repeatedly cheats on him, and whose defining characteristic is his pair of chunky glasses. This man’s name is George Smiley and he is played by the great Gary Oldman in a performance of quiet brilliance. James Bond, he is not.
Based on John Le Carre’s best-selling novel and directed by Tomas Alfredson, the man behind the equally touching and terrifying vampire thriller Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is set in the early 1970s when England’s intelligence agency MI6 – codenamed “the Circus” – is the last line of defense between Russia, the United States and the third world war. After a disastrous mission to extract a Hungarian defector becomes an international embarrassment, the Circus’ director codenamed Control (John Hurt) and Smiley, his right-hand man, are forced into retirement – in other words – sacked by the British government.
However, when a field agent named Ricky Tarr (an exceptional Tom Hardy) contacts his liaison in the government and informs him that there is a rotten apple within the upper ranks of the Circus, Smiley is secretly brought out of retirement. His job is to investigate four top officers whom Control had long suspected to be spies – Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), the current head of the Circus, Bill Hayden (Colin Firth), Smiley’s replacement, Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) – codenamed by Control as “Tinker,” “Tailor,” “Soldier” and “Poor Man” respectively.
With only one man on his task force, a young agent named Peter Guillam (a terrific Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley’s task of squeezing out the spy initially proves daunting, fruitless and frustrating –a feeling many audience members are likely to share as the sheer number of characters, code-speak, plot-lines and deliberately slow-pace can prove to be very confusing for anyone not paying close attention. It’s only when Ricky Tarr shows up on Smiley’s doorsteps with vital knowledge regarding the source of his intel that the mystery (and the movie), begins to unravel, thus gifting patient moviegoers with a rich film that ultimately evolves into an incredibly satisfying cinematic experience.
Among the chief pleasures of this rich experience is the uniformly excellent cast featuring the whose who of British actors including recently-minted Best Actor Oscar winner Colin Firth, character role staples John Hurt, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones and rising stars Benedict Cumberbath and Tom Hardy. Strong as they all are, it is Gary Oldman’s magnificently understated performance as Smiley that makes this film such a pleasure. Unlike most of his most acclaimed performances, there is nothing showy about Oldman’s work. In fact, it is a largely silent performance (his first words come more than 20 minutes into the film) that reveals itself via small moments as in a brilliant scene where he melancholically recalls a meeting with his arch nemesis, the unseen Russian master spy Karla. While this lack of showboating can easily be misconstrued as unremarkable work, a closer inspection will reveal that every movement and word spoken by Oldman is acutely thought-out and deliberately orchestrated. When he shifts his glasses, he makes you wonder why he does it. When he slumps on a couch, you wonder why he crumbles to the right instead of the left. Smiley is a largely internal animal and Oldman portrays his genius and faults to the tee.
Accenting Oldman’s performance and greatly aiding Alfredson’s astute direction are Maria Djurkovic’s magnificent and detailed art direction which masterfully captures the paranoia-drenched and perennially overcast settings of this Cold War-era thriller. It made me feel opening an umbrella inside the theater. Hoyte van Hoytema’s stunning cinematography and Alberto Iglesias’ jazz-infused score only add to the moody atmosphere of the film.
Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a meticulously crafted and artfully assembled atmospheric espionage drama that depicts the unsexy (and potentially accurate side) of the espionage business. The epitome of a slow-burn, this thoughtful and cerebral film showcases one of the finest, and perhaps the most understated performance of the great Gary Oldman’s career. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but moviegoers who like their thrillers cold, made in the 70s, and soaked in paranoia, suit up and carry an umbrella – this one’s for you!