TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY opens in the thick of the Cold War. It is the early 1970s, and British intelligence, referred to as The Circus, has its upper level shaken up by a failed mission in Hungary in which one of their own is killed. Agency head Control (John Hurt) is ushered out, as is his close colleague George Smiley (Gary Oldman).
It’s not long, though, until Smiley’s retirement is interrupted with a request to lead a secret investigation into another agent’s claim of a mole at the top of The Circus. Could new chief Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) or his loyal men Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), or Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) be double agents for the KGB?
While Smiley interviews accusing agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) and other former Circus employees, his trusted inside man Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) acquires what he needs from headquarters and is his eyes and ears around the office.
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY begins with a flurry of information that can be overwhelming to sort out at first, but director Tomas Alfredson encourages focus and patience as practiced by Smiley to make sense of it all. The gloriously drab visuals, save for some splendid wallpaper and soundproofing, lay bare the difficult work of rooting out answers amid the ambiguity of the characters’ actions. Yet the information in the frame is carefully ordered in verticals and horizontals, suggesting that while a pattern of rogue behavior may not stand out, it can be spotted with careful examination.
After all, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is concerned with the art of observation, especially when the stakes are high. Being able to read people and relationships, catch glimpses in reflected surfaces, and pluck details from notes and audio tapes is critical to the task at hand. Alfredson’s marvelous precision in showing how an agent might do difficult espionage work is as thrilling as any overblown James Bond setpiece. Guillam’s plan to smuggle records out of intelligence headquarters doesn’t have him hanging off of buildings but dazzles with an elegant beauty and daring found in the simplicity with which the scheme is conceived and executed. Whether the spies are functioning in realistic ways or not, their activities have the ring of truth to them, a quality likely indebted to the novel’s author John le Carre, which is the pen name of a former MI6 agent.
As Smiley, Oldman is the epitome of quiet cool. He’s the studying man putting the pieces together because he can fade into the background. He doesn’t say much, but his demeanor speaks volumes. Peering out from his glasses, he sees and processes until the time to take action arrives.
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY conveys a lot with a little. The exceptional concluding montage, which leaps between the past and present and features devastating match cuts of tears, reveals untold riches about the characters and the secretive lives they lead in the business of intelligence gathering. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is low key, which is only appropriate, but it is also electrifying when it cuts through the noise to the buried truth.