Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Cast: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, John Hurt
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s take on John le Carré’s sprawling 1974 novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is the antithesis of the usual spy thriller. Finally, here’s a movie for adults without conventional payoffs and dumbed-down plot machinations, demanding complete surrender to a multi-stranded story that weaves in upon itself until it resembles a series of coded messages and half-whispered secrets. While this might seem like a reason to dismiss the movie as confusing, the nonlinear structure and lack of emotional investment in the characters is an artistic choice that makes perfect sense given the world presented. Languidly paced, incredibly dense, and featuring a splendid cast doing most of their acting through clenched teeth and whispered dialogue, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a cerebral spy film and a triumph of mood-based atmosphere.
Those unfamiliar with le Carré’s novel or 1979’s five-hour British TV miniseries starring Alec Guinness may find themselves lost in a maze of confounding reversals, cross-reversals, and disorienting flashbacks as Alfredson (along with screenwriters Bridgett O’Connor and Peter Straughan) attempt to condense an enormous amount of information into a two-hour feature. In fact, the marketing campaign seems aware of the difficulty in selling any of this to mainstream audiences, with the official trailer positing the movie as a brisk and exciting thriller along the lines of a UK version of Mission Impossible, which is too bad since this is much more fascinating than that. Perhaps the movie it most resembles is actually 2007’s The Good Shepherd in that it’s more of a dissection of the mundane aspects of being a spy rather than a series of rousing espionage vignettes. While there are a few moments of brutal violence and suspense, Alfredson (who showed similarly brilliant instincts with 2009’s arty vampire flick Let The Right One In) is more keen on detailing how social alienation and emotional aloofness is crucial to maintaining an upper hand at the top of British intelligence.
Attempting even a cursory synopsis of the plot would be exhausting, but the basics involve a weathered former spy being brought out of retirement to uncover a mole inside the secret service in London during the early 70’s. As played by Gary Oldman in a towering performance of subtlety, George Smiley is a man hiding underneath large glasses and wafting rings of cigarette smoke, disconnected from the outside world not out of choice but out of necessity. The head of the secret service (known as “The Circus” and played here by a disgruntled John Hurt) has rounded up a list of five possible suspects, all of who may have reasons for betrayal. The supporting cast is uniformly strong, with Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, and Tom Hardy all making inedible impacts with characters that remain cloaked in anonymity throughout. But ultimately the film belongs to Oldman, who gives a sublimely muted performance behind haunted eyes and a poker-faced resolve. Even though he often appears fully in control, Smiley is a hollow shell of a man that has long ago given up on a conventional life, with the ghost of his estranged wife (who’s wisely kept off-screen) looming over the proceedings and adding a sense of pathos. Long known for showy roles, Oldman completely immerses himself here, resulting in an astonishing performance in which every nuance registers through facial expressions and brief exchanges of dialogue. Alfredson aids the actor’s virtuoso work by showing remarkable restraint in his collaboration with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who bathes everything in sterile grays and monochrome, and composer Alberto Iglesias, who provides a moody jazz-tinged score.
But perhaps’ what’s most daring about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is its insistence on keeping the audience at a distance. The film’s dramatic inertness will elicit just as many groans of boredom as it does glowing raves, with scenes of old men swimming, drinking tea, smoking cigarettes, and meeting in darkened rooms out weighing scenes where characters pull out their guns, much less fire them. There’s nothing inherently thrilling about what these men do, and this is the key to understanding both the detachment of the characters as well as Alfredson’s chilly approach to the material. Hushed conversations take place in secretive locations, characters appear and disappear from the narrative at will, and a sequence set at a party emerges as the film’s centerpiece, revealing character flaws and motivations that slowly come into focus by the third act. Indeed, even the big reveal of the mole remains muted, but this is all in keeping with Carré’s dense story about defeated men who survive because of their ability to keep others at arms length. Even though the mystery at the heart of the plot is important, the experience of how these people operate within this hermetically sealed universe of shadowy lies remains the main draw.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of those most rewarding spy movies in recent years, and in a way marks the arrival of a reinvention of the genre. For people wanting fast-paced thrills and escapism, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is still in theaters, and there always seems to be a gritty Liam Neeson revenge thriller on the horizon. But for audiences yearning for an intellectual stimulating movie-going experience that actually demands careful attention to details and multiple viewings, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a covert assignment worth accepting.