Like a successful spy, the quiet and grippingly brilliant Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy sits unobtrusively amidst the flashier year-end Oscar contenders—alternately heartwarming (We Bought a Zoo), Artistic with a capital “A” (Hugo, The Artist), tragic (War Horse, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close), scene-devouring and envelope-pushing (Shame), glossily true to life (Iron Lady, My Week with Marilyn) or purpose-built to sweep awards (The Descendants, Carnage).
Based on the classic spy novel, this film adaptation necessarily abridges Le Carré’s densely plotted story far more than did the famous 1979 six-episode BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness (who, for generations of fans, is the quintessential George Smiley). And yet it feels in no way over-simplified or dumbed down. Quite the opposite.
A raft of the world’s finest actors (nearly all male—this is a man’s world)—Colin Firth, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones and Gary Oldman as protagonist George Smiley—play high-level operatives in the British Intelligence at the height of the Cold War. When a mole is detected, it’s up to Smiley to ferret out which of his colleagues is the double agent.
I’ll confess I had little certainty what was happening the first time through. I was, however, terribly intrigued and enraptured. Immediately after I betook me to Wikipedia to read the book’s plot synopsis, as well as the entries on George Smiley and Le Carré. As I had suspected, much had flown by me the first viewing. The second time, the film was even more astounding as the pieces slid into place. Certainly nothing in this film is spelled out.
I imagine many viewers will be already familiar with the George Smiley character and background, but for those who aren’t, don’t be discouraged from going. I found the effort well worth it; Tinker Tailor is an incredible pleasure and one of my top films of the year. It has everything I want in movie entertainment—sharp script, superb acting, breathtaking story, but most of all, the power to transport and colonize the imagination. For me, the movie and its minor-key vibrations on loyalty, love and duty continue to linger weeks after.
It says something about director Tomas Alfredson’s determinedly low-key style that his Shakespeare Festival’s worth of bold-named on-screen talent somehow manages not to outshine the movie itself. Instead the amazing cast turns in seamless ensemble work, with Oldman setting the tone with his self-effacing and muted performance. Smiley somehow dominates every scene even while nearly blending into the background.
Oldman’s Smiley is a career bureaucrat as much as spy, and he operates with the calm gamesmanship of a chess master, albeit one very much grounded in genuine moral feeling. Office politics and the other interpersonal tensions and relations around which Smiley must navigate bring home particularly well the very human aspect of espionage. Which is after all as much a part of this story as the race to find the mole.
Set in the 1970s and heavily influenced by the Kim Philby defection, Tinker Tailor offers us the double nostalgic pleasures of beautifully retro set design (even Smiley’s progression of eyeglasses is a delight) and picturesquely retro Soviet threat. In this day of multifarious and ever-convoluted geopolitical instabilities, how sweetly quaint seems the KGB of old. On the back end, every technical aspect of this movie is notably excellent: script adaptation, set design, editing and sound design.