"There is a mole, right at the top of the Circus." So goes one of the more straightforward lines of dialogue in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tomas Alfredson's chilly telling of the classic John Le Carre novel. Yet despite that seemingly clean cut line, nothing is quite as it seems in this tale of espionage and betrayal. Though previously adapted as an acclaimed miniseries starring Alec Guiness, Le Carre's novel has never made it to the big screen until now. It's quite the dense tale (despite not being terribly long), and to tackle it in 2 hours is quite the challenge. Despite the doubts, Alfredson and company manage to effectively condense the story without resorting to an over-reliance on exposition. The end result is a thinking person's espionage thriller, one more content to focus on the intricate and subtle, rather than the bombastic and sensationalistic.
On paper, the narrative is straightforward. An ex-spy named George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is recruited to help find a mole hidden somewhere in MI6. Yet how the story is told is where Tinker Tailor makes its beautiful, icy mark. Right from the beginning it's clear that Alfredson (whose last film was the excellent vampire film Let the Right One In (2008)) knows how to both build and maintain an atmosphere. Though there are moments that could have been executed to create an overblown sense of tension, Alfredson keeps things rather grounded. Moving with the story's back-and-forth jumps to gradually reveal information, the level of tension is quite low. Yet it's precisely this slow burn that allows the film to work. It is maintained non-stop throughout the 2 hour run time, which makes those more eventful moments create their own sense of suspense naturally.
So even though screenwriters Peter Straughan and Bridget O'Connor have to deal with quite a bit of information, they manage to convey it all through just the right amount of dialogue. So even though this means that there are scenes of telling, they never weigh the film down. And Mr. Alfredson, ever the capable visual stylist that he is, has plenty of room to show, which he and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema do marvelously. Along with production designer Maria Djurkovic, Alfredson and Hoytema have fashioned a dark and dingy world that comes to life, albeit from a distance. This isn't a film that wants to spell things out. It gives you just enough to make the connections, and then moves on. And thanks to Mr. Alfredson's eye and the excellent cast, that's never an issue.
For though Gary Oldman has been marked as the lead of the story, Tinker Tailor is very much an ensemble piece. But even though this means that the wealth of screen time is spread quite far, the performers all get their chance to make an impression, and no one misses. In addition to his eye for atmosphere, Alfredson knows how to maximize his performers' abilities, even when they have precious little screen time. Even Kathy Burke, as a former member of the MI6 staff, who has but one scene to really act as a character, makes a nice impression. And things only get better for the more prominent characters. There are no acting fireworks here, but that's not to say that there isn't impressive work. One of the film's best moments comes very early on. It's nothing more than a shot of Smiley after his name has been mentioned by Control (John Hurt), yet the movement on his face and in his eyes says quite a bit, even though we don't have a full understanding of what that is at this point.
For even though this is a film about finding a traitor, it is also a film about change. Oldman's Smiley is technically retired when he's called back into service, and the film makes subtle references to the group of MI6 members who have been pushed out and left behind. In one scene, Oldman and Burke sit together on a couch sharing a drink and jokingly lamenting the lack of sex in their lives. Meanwhile, an oblivious teenage couple on the other side of the room sits, passionately kissing each other. One pair has their lives and their purpose ahead of them, the other has already expired. It's a significant moment, though its importance doesn't become quite full until after, when those little moments have time to sink in and add to the richness of what could have been just another spy tale.
Let's not forget about the other members of the ensemble, however. Oldman may be first billed among the cast, but it's some of his cast members who are in contention for MVP. First is Colin Firth as the womanizing Bill Haydon, whose full connection to Smiley is only revealed quite late in the game. Rivaling him for best in show are Tom Hardy as a field agent fearing for his safety, and Mark Strong who - no spoilers - gets to deliver some beautiful expressions of haunted pain that reveal the actor to be worth much more than simply the go-to man for stock villain roles. Other roles, like those filled out by Toby Jones, Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Ciaran Hinds, also have their moments to shine, especially Jones in a scene where he blows up at a co-worker. Ultimately, however, no one is allowed to hog the spotlight, which is good because there are no weak links, and the ensemble as a whole is an understated marvel.
So even though Alfredson's approach may have a bit of Scandinavian chill to it, this is still an effective journey through the dark corridors of Cold War espionage. From the performances to the direction to the meticulous production values (excluding Alberto Iglesias' score, which is fine, but pales in comparison to his work on The Skin I Live In), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a first class, atmospheric tale of intrigue and deception. Before the lights fully dimmed and the film started, my friend and I were treated to a series of previews, each louder and more chaotic than the next. In the aftermath, I now appreciate Tinker Tailor even more, because it may be the last intelligent movie of its kind for quite a while. All the more reason to make the trip to the theater, then.