Starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Mark Strong and Ciaran Hinds
My rating: ★★★★ stars
Excellent, cerebral espionage tale with tour-de-force central performance by Gary Oldman.
John le Carré’s dense espionage tale would seem to lack cinematic potential. The movie features none of the typical accoutrements of the spy genre: gunplay, car chases, ticking bombs, or athletic fight scenes. Instead, the movie focuses on information-gathering, character observation, and reasoning.
The film tells the story of master spy George Smiley (Gary Oldman), the recurring hero of many of le Carré’s novels, attempting to uncover a traitor in the upper tier, nicknamed “Circus,” of the British intelligence organization MI-6. Smiley is no James Bond; he’s a man of thought, not a man of action.
When I recommend this film to people, I’m careful to explain how cerebral it is because it runs so counter to what we’ve come to expect based on movies we’ve seen in the past. It’s a nearly perfect film, but it’s liable to disappoint those viewers who are used to films engaging them on a superficial level. This movie doesn’t happen at the audience. It features abundant tension and excitement, but these don’t come from spectacle. The movie doesn’t work unless the viewers pay full attention, read subtext, and immerse themselves in the world of the movie.
An early scene shows the head of Circus, called simply “Control” (John Hurt), announcing to his subordinates that he’s been forced into retirement, along with his right-hand man, Smiley, because of a botched operation in Budapest, which has apparently caused death of agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong). The words “forced into retirement” are never used. Control merely says that he’s leaving. He further announces that “Smiley will be leaving with me.” Oldman and Hurt play the scene with the smallest of gestures. Smiley turns ever so slightly toward Control; Control tightens his expression. We understand that the news of his own forced retirement is a surprise to Smiley. The screenplay by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan trusts the actors enough to let them convey the underlying conflict of the scene without argument, without words.
The sequence continues as Control and Smiley trudge wearily and inexorably out of the building. Director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) films their walk into exile with a great deal of style. In this early scene, Alfredson introduces the whole environment of Circus, one filled with strong horizontals and verticals crisscrossing into squares. Alfredson films through and around blinds, balustrades, fences, cubby holes, and paned windows. He uses a color palette of muted browns and grays. The espionage world is enervating and soul-killing, a world of regimental repetition and containment.
After Control’s death a short time later, the politician overseeing Circus calls Smiley back into service to ferret out the mole. Smiley soon discovers that Control had been aware of the mole and had narrowed the suspects down to five, whom he had given code names based on the British children’s rhyme “Tinker, Tailor.” One of Control’s suspects is Smiley. Knowing that he himself is not guilty, Smiley must then investigate the other four, “Tinker” Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), “Tailor” Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), “Soldier” Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), and “Poorman” Toby Esterhase (David Dencik).
Smiley takes under his wing trusted agent Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), the current head of the “scalp-hunters,” the agents who do the dirty work that the higher-ups don’t like to talk about (seductions, kidnappings, assassinations). Cumberbatch, as Guillam, does a wonderful job of creating character. His expressions, his body language, show a man of earnest sensitivity and unwavering morality and loyalty. The Guillam in the source novel is not nearly as well characterized.
It is one of Guillam’s scalp-hunters, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), who has brought the existence of the mole to the attention of the politician, leading to Smiley’s investigation. Everyone treats Tarr as if he’s tainted by the work he does, showing the subtle hypocrisy of those in the spy game. Hardy plays Tarr as aware of his own disreputable status—hunched over, shuffling around, speaking quietly, trying not to give offense.
The key performance is Oldman as Smiley, and it’s the performance of a lifetime. Much of the story revolves around discoveries made by Smiley. What those discoveries mean and how Smiley feels about them remain unstated. Oldman carries the story of the movie in his glances, posture, and expressions. It’s a quiet, intelligent, and introspective performance, one particularly restrained for an actor who is known for showier displays. What’s remarkable about the performance is that Oldman conveys that, despite Smiley’s maturity, experience, and intelligence, the world still has the capacity to surprise him.
Smiley’s investigation is not easy to follow. The screenplay takes a risk in recreating the non-linear structure of the novel. We see Control die at the beginning of the movie, and a few scenes later he shows up alive in a flashback. And, yet, when we see Prideaux shot at the beginning of the movie and show up alive a few scenes later it’s not a flashback. Prideaux has survived his ordeal in Budapest. The audience may feel confusion about what is occurring in the present and what is in the past. But that sense of being unsettled is part of the experience of the movie. Like Smiley, the audience doesn’t have all the information; key details are unclear. What has happened in the past seems like it’s bleeding into the present.
Much information is withheld from the audience until Smiley discovers it or until he realizes it’s significant. Casual viewers will find the structure and the storytelling frustrating and confusing. But viewers willing to invest in unraveling the narrative will have their close attention rewarded. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a quiet, complex, and intelligent film that exhibits a richness of characterization and narrative that’s often lacking in films that rely on spectacle.