Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Gary Oldman and Benedict Cumberbatch (taking a walk in John Watson's sidekick shoes) look for a double agent in this moody spy thriller.

Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor

Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief

There is something sinister beneath the superficial innocence of this traditional British counting rhyme. Or perhaps the very fact that I think that speaks to the influence of author John le Carré and his classic 1974 spy thriller, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” After serving himself as an operative for MI6, Britain’s intelligence-gathering equivalent of the CIA, le Carré (his real, far more English name, is David John Moore Cornwell) sought to de-mystify the secret world of espionage, stripping away the glamorous, candy-coated picture painted by Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Le Carré’s protagonists trade casinos for dingy offices and back alleys, swap in their tuxedos for tweed. Beneath the meaningless ideology and glossy public rhetoric of the politicians, the Cold War, as portrayed by le Carré in novels like “Tinker, Tailor,” “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” and “A Perfect Spy,” was really a gritty, amoral, cloak-and-dagger affair.

It’s funny that I ended up seeing “Tinker, Tailor” and the new “Mission: Impossible IV” at about the same time: the two films stand at complete opposite ends of a spectrum of attraction. The Tom Cruise franchise has always charmed by being completely absurd, a shiny, silly, entertaining bauble delivered in flashy style. The new adaptation of “Tinker, Tailor” (the book was previously adapted into an acclaimed five-hour mini-series starring Alec Guinness in the late 70’s) by Swedish director Tomas Alfredson is a perfect antidote, appealing to its viewers via an atmosphere of treachery, unease and grime. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema seems to have literally rubbed the camera lens with dirt before shooting, and it takes special effort to make a smorgasbord of dazzling European metropolises like London, Istanbul, Budapest and Paris all look uniformly ugly. It’s rather doubtful that the 70’s really looked like this, but it probably felt like this, at least for the paranoid members of British intelligence.

Le Carré’s novels are a maze of interweaving characters and complex backstory, so compressing one of his works into a two-hour thriller is no small task. Do not watch “Tinker Tailor” if you are expecting a mindless pursuit – this is a film where time and circumstance (remember, “loose lips sink ships” and all that) demand that much information be implied rather than spelt out, and the narrative isn’t going to sit and wait while you figure it out. Obviously it’s absurd to ask that every viewer have already read the book (and I still don’t believe it’s necessary), but it might be helpful to go into the film armed with at least a few facts first.

At the slippery, obscure center of the film is George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a high-ranking intelligence officer and right-hand man of Control (John Hurt), the head of the Secret Intelligence Service (also known as MI6, or, as its members refer to it with equal parts affection and disgust, “the Circus”). When agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) is shot in the back while trying to turn a Hungarian general in Budapest, both Control and Smiley are unceremoniously ousted from the Circus. A new cohort led by Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) are put in charge. Control dies soon afterwards.

However, allegations arise from another agent, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), that there is a long-term Russian mole now in a position of power at the Circus. The Civil Servant in charge of intelligence, Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) coaxes Smiley out of retirement in order to investigate the claim. As Smiley and his assistant Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) quietly pursue the mole, it becomes clear that Control already had suspicions regarding a double agent, and the botched mission in Hungary may have been more complicated than it appeared.

Like le Carré, Alfredson uses extensive flashbacks to reveal critical new information, leaving the viewer with the unsettling feeling of being out of the loop; when one of the characters declares late in the film that “things are not always as they seem,” the statement is rather redundant.  These men have friendships and rivalries stretching back decades, and not even Smiley, the sharpest, most vigilant observer of them all, is immune from their obscuring influence. The grim reality of espionage is that events are never as neat and tidy as we would like them to be; in such an environment of mistrust, fear and obsession, everything becomes cloudy. It’s telling that there are two major figures in Smiley’s life that the audience is never allowed to see full-on: Karla, the Soviet spy-master (Smiley’s professional counterpart) and his enigmatic wife, Anne.

The vast British ensemble cast is uniformly top-notch, but special praise really must be paid to Gary Oldman, whose entire career seems to have been leading up to George Smiley. A veritable chameleon, Oldman is known for his ability to completely disappear into a role: after making a big splash with his off-the-charts portrayal of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious in “Sid and Nancy” in 1986, he has appeared in supporting roles in such varied films as “Dracula,” “True Romance,” “The Contender,” “JFK,” “Air Force One,” “The Professional,” “Basquiat,” and both the “Harry Potter” and “Dark Knight” franchises.

It is only fitting that after years of being just one piece in a large ensemble, Oldman should finally get to lead one, but besides that Smiley is fitting for the very reason that he is unassuming, ordinary, invisible. Alleline and the other members of the Circus don’t take Smiley seriously for the very reason that he is slow-moving and subdued (almost to the point of catatonia). He can be easily ignored, just as Oldman has been ignored by the Academy for 25 years. Watching “Tinker Tailor,” I seriously think the actor drew inspiration by watching lizards: like some cold-blooded beast, Smiley at first moves only with great deliberation (and that includes blinking), but out in his element – that is, the cutthroat world of secret intelligence – he slowly builds up momentum until he is a force to be reckoned with.

Many viewers will be frustrated by the ambiguities of the narrative, and it’s true that many of le Carré’s nuances have been sacrificed to keep the film’s pace moving at a regular clip. But this is a film that revels in design and tone: despite dealing with several hundred pages’ worth of plot in barely over two hours, Alfredson (previously director of the moody vampire thriller “Let the Right One In”) manages to keep “Tinker Tailor” ponderous and plodding, letting the audience soak up the queasy colors and stale air of a bygone era. It’s genre cinema that’s anything but generic.

Now playing in theaters.

Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars

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