With its labyrinthine plot, shifting narrative threads and myriad characters, Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carre’s classic spy novel, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, may be initially off-putting to some viewers. However, for those who stick with it, their patience will be rewarded. The movie proves to be not so much a Cold War thriller, but rather a compelling examination of the men and women who devote themselves to a never-ending enterprise that ultimately holds little reward.
Previously adapted as a mini-series featuring an iconic performance from Alec Guinness as le Carre’s master spy, George Smiley, screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan faced the daunting task of condensing a narrative that was told in six hours to a script that would result in a two-hour film. Obviously, many nuances of the story were jettisoned, but the result is a tale that’s been distilled to its purest form. The story becomes a character-driven piece that’s far more interested in the emotional toll it takes on its characters, rather than action sequences.
Along with his superior, Control (John Hurt), Smiley (Gary Oldman) is forced to retire after an operation in Budapest goes awry and results in the death of agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong). However, there’s the suspicion that a mole has infiltrated the agency and soon Smiley is asked to return in order to ferret him out. Along with Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), an eager young agent who’s wet behind the ears, he attempts to gather evidence on a wide variety of suspects, all of them longtime colleagues. Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) seems to be a carefree agent but is a master at holding his cards close to his vest. Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) and Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) are so protective of a special operation of their own that they are surely hiding something. Of course, digging into the past of these characters is only the tip of the iceberg as far as the mystery is concerned. As the film progresses, Smiley uncovers secrets that lead to an unexpected source.
Alfredson shifts the action of the film from country to country, doesn’t hesitate to show us some of the characters’ memories and employs a long flashback as well, once rogue agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy, delivering the film’s only bad performance) comes in from the cold to deliver some unexpected intel that has a profound impact on the plot. He weaves a complex narrative web while conjuring up a visual palette suffused with cigarette smoke and a perpetual gloom, mirroring his subject’s mindset. If at times it seems as though there’s no making heads or tails of what’s going on, that’s precisely the point. We are meant to share in Smiley’s confusion, though he keeps his sentiments far under wraps. However, once the smoke clears and the clues fall into place, the answer to the film’s central mystery rewards our patience.
What makes the movie stick with you is its emotional resonance. Each of these agents is damaged, their vitality and idealism sucked dry by an agency that must constantly be fed. Each of the characters carries with them a degree of cynicism that mirrors their tattered souls and you can’t help but walk away marveling at the waste. As you would expect from the veteran cast, fine performances abound but it’s Oldman who steals the spotlight. Silent for the film’s first 20 minutes, his Smiley is an expert at observation, drinking in the behavior of his colleagues and quietly filing away bits of knowledge until a solution presents itself. The actor projects the sense that Smiley is weighed down by a lifetime of regrets as well as the knowledge of things better left unknown. Oldman’s stillness is initially disconcerting, but he gives us occasional glimpses of Smiley’s vitriol and ruthlessness throughout, resulting in a tragic portrait of a man who gave his all to his country and is left with a hollow prize. Tinker proves to be the thinking person’s spy movie, while Oldman forcefully reminds us why he’s one of the great screen actors of his generation.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at email@example.com.