Directed by Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy successfully drops us right in the middle of 1970’s Cold War London where we join members of MI6 at a meeting in a bunker known as “The Circus.” Attendees are Control (John Hurt), George Smiley (Gary Oldman), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Percy Allenine (Toby Jones), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). Under discussion is a failed mission to Budapest which ended in disaster for agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong). As a result of the botched mission Control is forced into early retirement taking his right hand man Smiley with him.
Prior to this, however, Prideaux had confided in Control that he suspected there was an undercover Soviet agent working as a mole within the agency. It now falls to Smiley to come out of his forced retirement and work under the radar to uncover the spy’s identity. Control has narrowed it down to five likely subjects who he codenames as follows: Allenine aka Tinker, Haydon aka Tailor, Bland aka Soldier, Esterhase aka Poorman and (up until this point) Smiley.
The first striking realization for the viewer is the thespians in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy are a Who’s Who of top-class British talent (Helen Mirren, who is conspicuously missing, would have been a good fit for this group). Even up and comers like the incredibly versatile Tom Hardy, who plays rogue MI6 member Ricki Tarr, and the strangely appealing Benedict Cumberbatch, who tackles the role of Smiley’s newly appointed sidekick Peter Guillam, get in the action bringing to life this tense political thriller.
Yet, being a good actor doesn’t always equate with versatility. One of my favorite treats when watching a movie is to be surprised by an actor (or actress) who successfully undertakes a role far removed from their norm. I’ve always been a huge fan of Oldman’s shouty, villainous performances, but he went up even further in my estimation with his portrayal of the quietly strong and measured Smiley. Reminiscent of American detective Columbo, Smiley was cute and cuddly but definitely not one to be underestimated as he didn’t suffer fools gladly (it was also refreshing to see Oldman playing a good guy for a change). It’s important to also mention Firth’s enjoyable performance of the suave Haydon. For me, Firth’s gone from being a guilty pleasure in his “Pride and Prejudice” heyday to knocking it out of the park with every recent performance he’s been given (last I checked he won the Oscar for “The King’s Speech“). He’s my flavor of the month and can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned.
Aside from the actors, Tomas Alfredson has to be admired for his directorial achievement. He successfully delivers a very complicated plot without spoon feeding or being condescending to his audience. And even though Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy originates from a 1974 spy novel by John le Carre (which also spawned a BBC television series), he puts his own distinct mark on the telling. He also manages to create an authentic 1970’s London with scenery costume and feel, leaving viewers with the impression that they are actually watching genuine footage from that time period.
The sinister soundtrack by Alfredson and Alberto Iglesias deserves recognition too. It superbly evoked an air of mystery and menace over proceedings.
Although I had an overall positive reaction to this film, I would say that on a negative note it did require 100% concentration throughout — there is no respite to be had. You really can’t afford to sneeze at the wrong moment or take a bathroom break; if do you’ll most certainly be left behind. Also, the end reveal didn’t bowl me over but I don’t think that overly mattered as I found the movie to be more about the journey than the end result.
I think the best phrase to apply to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is slow and steady wins the race. Those seeking James Bond type action may be let down, but hardened espionage fans will delight in the slow, controlled pace and the very real portrayals and circumstance.