In keeping with today's topic, Cold War espionage, let me start off with a full disclosure: I am not the ideal audience for spy thrillers. The rules of the genre—the "McGuffin" everyone is searching for, the traitor in the ranks, the dispassionate trust-no-one isolation—are not issues I find especially compelling. For me, there has to be some pretty stylish filmmaking, engaging characters, or a profoundly felt moral dilemma to make it all worthwhile.
Which brings us to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the impressive new screen adaptation of the acclaimed 1974 novel by veteran spy thriller-meister John Le Carré. Directed with oodles of cool craftsmanship by Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson (his last film was the brooding Swedish vampire thriller, Let The Right One In), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an elegant piece of work in every way, from its smart, spare script by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughn, to its ensemble cast of impeccable British A-listers. It has everything going for it except a reason for the viewer to care.
The story proper begins in 1973; the Cold War is still in high gear when veteran agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is invited out of retirement to oversee a particularly sensitive matter. A few years earlier, Smiley and his team leader, "Control" (John Hurt) were forced out of the service after a botched mission in Hungary to disclose the identity of an alleged turncoat "mole" operating in the upper echelons of British intelligence. But now, despite the career-ending disgrace of the Hungarian mission, evidence suggests the mole is real, and still passing secrets to the Russians. Now "outside the family," Smiley is dispatched to find out who it is.
Taking up residence in a nondescript but secure London flat, Smiley ponders which of his former colleagues in the inner circle might be the culprit (each assigned a code name from the old nursery rhyme). His potential suspects include Tinker, peppery Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Tailor, breezy charmer Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Soldier, old-school Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), and Poor Man, self-effacing Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). Assisting Smiley is young Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch, in a perfectly thatched and side-burned '70s coif), who has all the right clearances to get the older man the info he needs.
Complications arise in the form of a runaway British agent, Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy), who suddenly resurfaces in London, hoping to cut a deal to spring the captured Russian woman he loves. Complex, too, is the fate of ex-agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), who was involved in the Hungarian fiasco. These supporting players give flavorful performances, as does Kathy Burke as a boisterous mensch of a onetime op who helps steer Smiley's investigation in the right direction. (Her ribald presence and flashbacks to a debauched office Christmas party provide a welcome breath of air in Alfredson's otherwise studiously controlled atmosphere.)
Alfredson keeps the film purring discreetly along, like a finely tuned luxury automobile, jolted by an occasional shock of blood or violence. But Alfredson best conveys the mood of dramatic circumspection, of everything happening under the surface as the characters make their wary, chess-like moves. There's a wonderful stillness to the way Oldman's Smiley watches everything through his oversized glasses, without so much as a flicker of an eyelash. The warren of impersonal, bunker-like offices, divided by glass panels, where the agents ply their secret trade, suggest an ant farm of drone-like efficiency, far out of sight of the everyday world.
But also a tad impersonal are the characterizations of the agents under investigation. Had they not been played by such recognizable actors as Firth, Hinds and Jones, I'd be hard-pressed to tell the characters apart. Indeed, I found myself watching these excellent actors act instead of being drawn into the affairs of the men they were playing. Oldman is fine, as well; Smiley is given slightly more backstory than the others, so Oldman's silences and pauses are freighted with more meaning.
But I wish I'd been more emotionally involved with these characters, or felt the tragedy of moral corruption more keenly. Still, viewers who love the cool shadow world of spy thrillers will find little to fault in this one.
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY
★★★ (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, and John Hurt. Written by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughn.
From the novel by John Le Carré. Directed by Tomas Alfredson. A Focus Features release. (R) 127 minutes.
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