Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy ****
Directed by: Tomas Alfredson.
Written by: Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan based on the novel by John le Carré.
Starring: Gary Oldman (George Smiley), Benedict Cumberbatch (Peter Guillam), Colin Firth (Bill Haydon), Tom Hardy (Ricki Tarr), John Hurt (Control), Toby Jones (Percy Alleline), Mark Strong (Jim Prideaux), David Dencik (Toby Esterhase), Ciarán Hinds (Roy Bland), Kathy Burke (Connie Sachs), Stephen Graham (Jerry Westerby), Simon McBurney (Oliver Lacon), Roger Lloyd-Pack (Mendel), Svetlana Khodchenkova (Irina).
George Smiley is one of the best characters in spy fiction. Described by author John le Carre as “frog like”, he hides behind his absurdly large glasses and doesn’t let anyone in – he doesn’t let anyone know how rattled he is. His exterior is calm stillness. During the course of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy he raises his voice exactly once – near the end of the film. For the rest of the movie he reacts as if everything that happens is what he expected it to be – even if he isn’t. Played by Gary Oldman, George Smiley is one of the most fascinating characters of the year. He even outdoes Alec Guiness, who played Smiley in the 1979 miniseries of the same name (and later in Smiley’s People). As Smiley watches everything around him, you watch Smiley – and you can’t take your eyes off of him.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is one of at least two spy masterpieces that le Carre ever wrote (the other being The Spy Who Came in From the Cold). Spy work has never seemed quite as mundane as it does here, and that lends it the aura of authenticity. Tomas Alfredson’s film, set in 1973, is about a group of men who look like accountants, with their bad three piece suits, worse haircuts, who move in and out of rooms with the type of horrid wall paper that only people in the 1970s could love (it reminded me of my old dentist’s office). They are playing an intricate game of cat and mouse with a Soviet spy named Karla, and trying to figure out who his mole is inside of The Circus, the British Intelligence Agency. The movie is deliberately paced – so deliberately that you barely notice who tense things end up. This is a movie that sneaks up on you as you are watching it, slowly drawing you in, and than weathering up the suspense level to an almost unbearable degree. I haven’t seen an old school thriller so wonderfully made in years.
Smiley was forced out a year ago when Control (John Hurt), the long-time head of The Circus, sent Jim Prideauz (Mark Strong) on an ill advised mission to Hungary to meet with a General who was supposed to reveal who the mole was. No one else in The Circus even believes there is a mole, but Control has it narrowed down to five suspects – Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), who has suddenly stumbled onto a source he calls Merlin who gives them the best intelligence they ever got on the Soviets, Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), a charming playboy who has risen up the ranks at the Circus, Roy Bland (Ciarian Hinds), who is blunt and gruff, Toby Esterhause (David Denick) an Eastern European defector or Smiley himself. The mission goes horribly wrong, Control is forced out, and soon after dies, and Smiley is left with nothing to do – as his wife has “left him again”. Months later though, Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) has contacted Smiley again. They have just heard from a former agent, Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) who they thought had defected, who says he has information regarding a mole in The Circus. Not wanting to go inside The Circus, they go to Smiley to try and figure out if Tarr’s story is true – and if it is who the mole is. Aided only by Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley starts to piece together the story bit by bit.
At this point, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a period piece – and on the surface, it seems like a flashback to easier time – where the enemies were known and the stakes clear. And yet, as the movie moves along, it becomes clear that this is a story really without good and evil – a story of moral relativism. As played by Gary Oldman, Smiley becomes a darker character – a man with no illusions and with no ideals really either. He thinks Karla’s weakness is that he is a fanatic – a true believer in his cause. Smiley has no such illusions about the “West”. They are as morally corrupt as the evil empire they are fighting. To others, this is a game with the fate of the world as the outcome. But for Smiley, it’s more personal than that. More than anything else, he fights for himself. Oldman plays this role brilliantly – perhaps in the best performance of his career – and it’s because of him that the movie gains its thematic weight – and movies it beyond a period piece, into a movie with contemporary overtones.
The rest of the cast is universally excellent as well. I could spend a lot of time praising each actor in the movie, but instead I’ll highlight the two supporting players that stood out the most for me. First, there is Tom Hardy’s Ricky Tarr. Hardy brings the same brooding intensity and Brando-esque theatrics that he did earlier this year in Warrior, but he also turns Tarr into almost a lovesick teenager, complaining about his parents at circus because they simply don’t “understand”. Better still is Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam. Hiding behind the worst haircut in the movie (and that’s saying something), his makes Guillam a more emotional creature than he was in the past – with one wordless scene of him that is almost heartbreaking.
Directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of the fluid films of the year. The camera seems to stay just far enough away to give the impression that we are eavesdropping on the proceedings (although there is one great sequence where Oldman looks directly into the camera as he recounts his encounter with Karla, which far more effective than a flashback would have been). The story has been cut a little bit, but Alfredson and his screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan does add one thing - a repeated flashback to a Christmas party which at first plays like a flashback to more innocent times, but gradually takes on a more ominous tone. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is marvellous as a spy thriller – but there’s more to it than just that.