Based on the well regarded 1970s British crime novel by John le Carré, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the long-anticipated followup to Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 vampire classic, Let The Right One In. Featuring a staggering cast of A-list acting heavyweights, anchored by Gary Oldman and Oscar-winner Colin Firth, and featuring John Hurt, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, and others, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy sets up as a sturdy, intricately crafted chess match of espionage and intrigue. Working for the clinically named Control, a group of MI6 agents look to root out and uncover a Soviet double agent who has infiltrated into the British Secret Service. This…should…be…awesome, right?
Control is actually the name of a man (John Hurt) who is the head of a covert department of British Intelligence; a secretive organization saddled with the uncomplimentary nickname of “The Circus”. Control was the orchestrator of a mission to discover a spy in Budapest, Hungary and Control sent one of his top men, Prideaux (Mark Strong), to handle affairs. Shockingly, the mission went tragically wrong and not only did it leave Control without one of his top agents, but both he and the quiet and insular George Smiley (Gary Oldman) have been sent to an unwanted, and perhaps unjust, early retirement.
With Control and Smiley gone, Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) is named the new Chief and promoted along with him are his close colleagues, Haydon (Firth), Bland (Hinds), and Esterhase (David Dencik). As everyone settles into their new roles, questionable dealings come to light involving the new leaders of British Intelligence. A program called “Witchcraft”, quietly being tracked and investigated by Control and Smiley at the time of their firing, has seen top secret Soviet information not only be obtained but also provided to the Americans. Apparently a quid pro quo of sorts is in place and the British are also seeing their offerings reciprocated by the Americans. When all of this is discovered by another intelligence officer, Lacon (Simon McBurney), Smiley is brought back into the fold and he is advised that five men are on the shortlist of possible moles – Alleline, Haydon, Bland, Esterhase, and George Smiley himself. Undaunted, Smiley begins the process necessary in trying to root out the spy and end this “Circus” once and for all.
From the outset, the problem with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is that it begins immediately, as if we were all either familiar with le Carré’s novel and characters; or that we are arriving to the film with a familiarity and understanding that has preceded the film’s beginnings. A cliche I have heard repeatedly through the years, when people are describing complex plots and films, is some variation of the mantra – “You really have to pay attention and not be distracted when you watch [insert name of film here].” Okay. Well, then this is the movie they were talking about. There is a cubic ton of information dropped on viewers from the beginning and I, for one, am not afraid to admit that I was drowning and having to swim upstream for much of the first 20 minutes or so of the film.
Only when Ricki Tarr enters the story does the film settle down for a bit. Tarr is a former “cleaner” for British Intelligence who was scared away months before. Played with aplomb by Tom Hardy (Warrior, Inception), Tarr is a captivating figure, who informs Smiley, after breaking into Smiley’s apartment no less, that he was on the verge of discovering the identity of the mole, but got too close. When pressed for details, Tarr reveals that he became intimate with the wife of the man he was sent to investigate and to his eternal sorrow, that woman, Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova), became an eventual victim of his meddling and investigation. When things got bad, Tarr ran, and he has now fallen into the lap of Smiley.
Acknowledging that this adaptation by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan will inevitably leave you in the dark more than once along the way, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a well-made and diligently conceived thriller. Director Tomas Alfredson is a master at playing with mood and tension and he certainly knows how to maneuver the marionette strings well enough to keep everyone, and everything, slightly off-kilter. Smiley’s investigation turns towards interviewing people who left when he and Control were relieved of their duties and one individual, Connie Sachs (played tremendously well by Kathy Burke), is a treasure trove of information. Along the way, Alfredson caters the viewing experience to almost counteract the flurry of unyielding detail and information we are asked to process. Aiding in that process are some fantastic supporting performances by Burke, Hardy, and the awesomely named Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays the curious Guillam, a man with a sordid past who may become an unlikely ally for Smiley along the way.
Everything looks great, the film is paced well visually, and yet, I am still unable to piece together all the intricacies of the plot and how it unfolds. I have no frame of reference, I must admit. I have not read John le Carré’s novel of the same name, but in all honesty, I should not have to. Dazzling acting, including a subdued and memorable turn from Gary Oldman, gorgeous cinematography and art direction, and a compelling score by Alberto Iglesias only takes you so far. In the days after I saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I was still struggling to contextualize the film and I recently even read through the screenplay to try and foundation the film back in my brain. Maybe I needed more sleep the night before.
But I cannot think that I am unique in this criticism. I simply do not know all that many people who are going to be captivated and riveted by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I appreciate Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and recognize that it is a meticulously crafted film, with a rich and rewarding ensemble giving terrific performances up and down the card. And yet, I really cannot profess any more praise than that. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is cold to the touch and when you look into its heart, I kind of think it wants to be. The lack of feeling may play well in spy circles and this genre of filmmaking, but if there is no time allowed to stop and process a library’s worth of exposition, detail, and information, then eventually the coldness turns into a freeze.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was maddeningly fascinating to watch and frustrating to endure. That I pegged the mole largely from the outset was nothing profound or anything to be proud about – it is sheer dumb luck; akin to throwing darts at a balloon wall from a fair distance. I may revisit this film again when it arrives on home video, but I will have to block the time. And honestly, I may not really ever want to find that time, despite recognizing that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, on a technical level, one of the finest movies of 2011.