In John le Carré’s novels, you will not find any glamor or fancy gadget you have seen in James Bond stories. The spies in his novels are more or less than public servants in shadows. They tentatively move around their world where anything, including death, can suddenly happen if they are not watchful. No wonder that they usually guard their thoughts and feelings behind their cool facades even when they are with their men…. or are they?
Thomas Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is based on one of the well-known novels written by le Carré. The novel was previously made into a 6-hour BBC TV miniseries in which Alec Guinness gave one of the best performances in his career as George Smiley, a quiet, meek, non-sociable man who is very good and natural at the works he does not like much.
Smiley, a recurring character in le Carré’s works, is a plain middle aged man in appearance, but he is a brilliant spy of MI6 who can play a complex battle of wits with his counterpart in KGB. At the beginning, we see how Smiley is forced to leave MI6, nicknamed “The Circus” by the insiders. The head of MI6, Control(John Hurt), suspects that there is a double agent, or a mole, planted at the highest rank of the Circus. He secretly devises a mission to uncover the identity of the mole while focusing on the possible five suspects including his deputy Smiley(Gary Oldman). Control seems to get a good chance at first, but the mission, which is supposed to be carried out by one of his trusting agents, Jim Prideaux(Mark Strong) turns out to be a trap, so the disastrous incident happens in Budapest, Hungary as a consequence.
Taking the responsibility for this fiasco, Control resigns, and so does Smiley. Not long after that, Control dies due to heart attack, and Smiley continues his semi-retirement life. However, he is called back by the government; they come to believe that Control’s suspicion is indeed true, and they want Smiley to do Control’s unfinished job. Of course, Smiley is not a mole, so there are now four suspects who become a close inner circle at the top of MI6: pompous Percy Alleline(Toby Jones), who becomes the new head of MI6, suave Bill Haydon(Colin Firth), brusque Roy Bland(Ciarán Hinds), and opportunistic Toby Esterhage(David Dencik). The name of the novel comes from the code names given to them by the Control during his private investigation; Alleline was Tinker, Haydon was Salior, Bland was Soldier, Esterhage was Poor man, and Smiley was Beggarman.
Smiley begins the investigation with the assistance of Peter Guillam(Benedict Cumberbatch), only guy in MI6 Smiley can trust. With the screenplay by Bridget O’Connor(she died before the filming) and Peter Straughan, the movie moves around several flashbacks and turns while Smiley goes around to meet the people or peruses the documents at his temporary headquarter. The pace is slow with its dense storytelling, and it requires a certain amount of patience to follow the story, but it is interesting to observe how the characters behave in their world where it is wise to reveal as little as possible to others while keeping their faces even if you are not a mole. Their occupation can be categorized as “3D job” : Dirty, Difficult, and Dangerous.
The tension is kept at low levels(after all, this is not as urgent as defusing a bomb), and there is the constant feeling of paranoid around the screen along with gray/brown images of London during the 1970s. Even when one character does a simple job like snatching a certain important file from the record archive, there is a good reason for him to believe that somebody might watch on him. With one false move, his cover can be blown at any minute in front of others in the building – including the mole.
Gary Oldman is as steady and quiet as the film itself. Oldman has been known for playing diverse roles in his career, and, in contrast to his more flamboyant roles in the past, he gives a restrained performance which subtly holds the center of the story like Guinness’ performance in the miniseries version. He does not talk much, and his face does not say much either, but Oldman masterfully conveys us the soul bitter about not only his works but also his elusive adulterous wife who is almost never shown in the film. Unlike the TV version, the movie does not show Smiley’s first and only encounter with his arch-nemesis in the flashback, but Oldman has a quietly powerful scene where he reminisces that encounter in one monologue(“We are not so very different, you and I. We’ve both spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another.”).
The actors surrounding Oldman are as good as they can be. Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, and David Dencik are fine as the human beings with the cards behind their backs rather than mere suspects in the list. With ragged, weary face, John Hurt would have left enough impression even if he had appeared only in the opening scenes. Benedict Cumberbatch, who is currently playing Sherlock Holmes on BBC TV miniseries, does a good job as a man who must sacrifice his personal feelings for his work. Kathy Burke, Tom Hardy, Stephen Graham and Mark Strong have their own small moments when Smiley extracts the information he needs from each of them.
The director Thomas Alfredson is no stranger to the lonely people in the cold, bleak world. His previous work was “Let the Right One in”(2008), which is a gloomy vampire tale about two main characters desperately clinging to each other during cold winter nights. They are outsiders to the society of ordinary people in that film, so do the characters in this movie, who must work in shadows while not being noticed by others.
The atmosphere of the film is impeccable. I liked the melancholic mood surrounding the excellent production designs and good performances. However, I think it may be not easy for you to follow the plot or gather the clues led to the answer at the finale unless you have not read the novel or have not watched the TV version. In addition, in the process of compressing the novel into a 2-hour movie, the movie leaves some gaps and holes that may confuse you. Though TV version is certainly less cinematic, it has enough space to unfold its complex story, and that is where its basic strength comes from.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is an interesting film which can hold your attention if you give it a chance. This is a rare spy thriller which is not driven by car chases and explosion but by the mood and the intelligence of the main character. I could appreciate that as much as I enjoyed the actions in “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”(2011), and maybe you can – as long as you are aware of what you are going to get.