Thrillers and spy tales have devolved in movies to a hash of slice’n’dice editing, prefabricated plots and outlandish action and gunplay that makes all espionage into James Bond or, worse, a video game.
Which is why “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is such a welcome relief. Like the John Le Carre novel on which it is based, this quietly devious film is less about the reveal at the end – though it makes those count – than in exploring the nooks and crannies of a drab, ruthless world filled with people whose paranoia would seem ridiculous, if it weren’t also justified.
Director Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”) manages to stylize the visual part of the story just enough to make it seem slightly foreign. Yet this is a movie whose visuals – slow, steady, lovingly patient – also inform the sensibility of the story and the time period.
Specifically, this is 1973 London, in a corner of the city where the swinging ’60s never laid a glove. MI6 is housed in a dark, labyrinthine headquarters known as the Circus, but there’s nothing festive about it. The color scheme is not earth tones – it’s dust tones. And the people inside, cigarettes screwed into the corner of their mouths, match the décor.
Maybe that coloration is a result of the Cold War; maybe it’s because of it. In any case, the atmosphere is positively poisonous. There’s a mole in the upper reaches of the Circus, but when the former boss of the agency, Control (John Hurt), tried to prove it a year earlier, it led to a blown operation in Budapest and his retirement (and death). With him went his No. 2 man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), who has been quietly biding his time.
But the new boss, Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), who dismissed Control’s theory about a mole, apparently has missed the signals that confirm Control’s notion. So higher-ups quietly enlist Smiley to conduct his own off-the-books investigation. He finds that Control had narrowed his list of suspects down to Smiley and the other four top men in the Circus (played by Jones, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth and David Dencik).
The bulk of the film focuses on Smiley’s inquiry, as he runs down a variety of threads which, together, comprise the fabric of the deception and betrayal. The story takes the viewer to Istanbul, Budapest and the British countryside – but above all, it explores the twisted, serpentine nature of the spy’s existence, one infected by a permanent lack of trust in anyone other than one’s self.
Alfredson lets this story unfold with great care, while jumping unceremoniously back and forth between flashbacks and the film’s present. Some of those flashbacks are Smiley’s own, others are stories told to him by the people he interviews as part of his careful inquiry. This movie forces you to either pay attention or lose your way.
Alfredson is unafraid to pause for a minute or so and show us Smiley doing nothing more than thinking: doing the jigsaw puzzle in his head, as he analyzes and dissects human behavior, motives and the political vagaries of the chess game these spies play with each other. I realize my metaphors – chess, jigsaw puzzles – clash here, but Smiley’s game is a little like doing both at once. Even when he comes to a conclusion, he has to study it: Is it the actual answer – or one he has been led to by someone who is still one step ahead of him?
The cast is stellar, with each doing what he needs to without calling excess attention to himself. There are red herrings but the conclusion is arrived at honestly, without trickery. Jones is wonderfully puffed-up as the self-important Alleline, while Hurt, Firth and Hinds all have their moments of unbridled anger and hostility to unreliable coworkers upon whom they are forced to count.
At the center is Oldman, an actor who has built a career playing characters that tend toward the histrionic. Here, he plays a man who understands the long game and how it’s played, who never gets particularly excited about anything but who never loses his sense of urgency. It’s a beautifully measured performance, one that grows in confidence and power as the film goes on.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is serious stuff, a spy movie for people who haven’t let their attention spans atrophy. It pays dividends for the attentive – and bears up under a second viewing.