Bringing “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” to the big screen was a pretty tough challenge. The movie is adapted from John le Carre’s complex 1974 spy novel of the same name. In 1979 it was adapted for television in the form of a seven part mini-series. So trying to condense the story down to two hours while maintaining its tense spy thriller feel was quite an undertaking. But hats off to director Tomas Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan for not only pulling it off but for delivering a deep and enthralling picture.
I was first attracted to “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” thanks to its stellar cast. The film features a veritable who’s who of british actors. Any movie that features the incredible talents of Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Toby Jones, and Ciaran hinds (who is actually Irish) is automatically off to a good start. Some of my favorite actors are in this bunch and here they really shine. Each perfectly relay the antsy Cold War paranoia that this type of movie calls for. Not one performance is disingenuous or fake. In many ways you can call this an acting clinic.
The film takes place in the early 1970’s. George Smiley (Oldman) is called back to British Intelligence, also known as “The Circus”, to root out a high level “mole” who is believed to be leaking highly classified intelligence to the Russians. One year earlier Smiley along with his boss Control (Hurt) had been forced out after a botched assignment caused the capture of an agent (Strong) in Hungary. Since Control has been removed, the Circus is being run by Percy Alleline (Jones). Working alongside Alleline is Bill Haydon (Firth), Roy Bland (Hinds), and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). Smiley puts together a team to help find the mole. An important piece of the puzzle is an agent named Ricki Tarr (Hardy). Tarr is the one who made the allegation of a mole and may have even more information that could bring everything to light. Smiley must sift through the misdirections and false leads to find the identity of the mole and the four Circus higher-ups are prime suspects.
“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” rewards patience. It’s a story that unfolds through a slow leak of clues and cleverly timed flashbacks. It’s a complex and layered story that requires a lot of attention and that could be what attracts many people to it (myself included). On the flip side I can see where some may be dissuaded after seeing the story as a muddled, convoluted, and almost laborious exercise. I’m not going to lie and say I completely grasped everything I was seeing. It did take a few rewinds and a little research to really put everything together. In some ways that did take away from the experience but on the other hand everything was presented. While it’s deliberate and sometimes dry, O’Connor and Straughan’s script is tight, structured, and clearly intends to make the audience work right alongside of Smiley.
Another thing you will instantly notice is the careful attention to the look and presentation of the movie. Alfredson’s direction is quite good and the mood and tone is just right. The movie is saturated with blues and greys that creates a cold, sullen atmosphere. The steel-faced agents are in a constant state of seriousness to the point that any smile automatically evokes suspicion from the audience. Oldman’s understated performance is pitch-perfect. Smiley is tired and worn but committed and resolved. His weathered poker-face hides his thoughts and intentions from the other characters and from us. Even Tom Hardy’s strange-looking blonde wig seems perfectly in tune with the picture.
This isn’t a spy movie in the same vein as James Bond or Jason Bourne. I’m certainly no expect of being a secret agent but this feels as real and grounded as any spy movie I have seen. It’s slow-moving and sometimes difficult to navigate but it’s also smart and completely engaging. It’s top-tier cast makes things even better and the movie would be worth seeing just for the wealth of acting talent involved. “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” isn’t a film for everyone. But I found myself completely invested even if it did take a little work to get the full thrust of the story.