It’s not often that the same actor gives one of the hammiest performances of a given year and one of the subtlest. In 2011, Gary Oldman achieved that feat by following his egregious mugging and cavorting in Red Riding Hood with his peerlessly sly, low-key work as George Smiley in this John le Carré adaptation. If scenery-chewing is recreation for an actor of Oldman’s caliber, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy shows him hard at work — and it’s superlative work, even if it’s not emotionally extroverted enough for major award-season recognition.
Tinker Tailor offers work for the audience, too, in a good way. In terms of on-screen action, this spy drama bears no more resemblance to the James Bond, Mission Impossible or even Bourne films than Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes does to the current screen version. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) has stayed true to former British intelligence officer le Carré’s depiction of espionage as dry men talking softly in dusty rooms.
The resulting film is a densely plotted procedural mystery that introduces scores of characters in quick succession, with no fanfare, and expects the audience to keep up. For viewers ignorant of the 1974 novel and 1979 BBC miniseries, this will be a struggle. But Alfredson’s musty, meticulously detailed recreation of Cold War London and other locales exerts its own fascination.
The film opens with agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) in Hungary, fishing for information about a possible mole in British intelligence. The mission ends in disaster and an agency purge, leaving Smiley — who’s been in the spy business since World War II — a civilian. But a rogue operative (Tom Hardy) surfaces with news that the mole may be real, after all, and could compromise the intelligence service’s most prized program, Witchcraft.
With the backing of a civil servant and covert help from a younger intelligence officer (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley sets out to discover who’s rotten at the very top of the organization. The suspects include some of the UK’s finest actors — Ciarán Hinds, Colin Firth — at the top of their game.
To twentysomethings watching the film, this intrigue may seem as remote as science fiction. Rarely do the characters mention ideological stakes — and, indeed, as Alfredson depicts them, the two sides of the Iron Curtain look pretty much the same (dingy and smoky, with loud wallpaper). The reigning intelligence boss (Toby Jones) is less concerned with beating communism than with currying the Americans’ favor.
As we watch, however, we learn that each player has a personal stake in the cat-and-mouse game. For Smiley, rooting out the mole vindicates decades of service — to which he seems to have sacrificed, among other things, his marriage. As he’s told early on, “It’s your generation, your legacy” that’s tainted by the possibility of betrayal.
Alfredson introduces us to Smiley by showing us the back of his head, and even when we see his face, it’s masklike. Behind the old spy’s jaded, watchful impassivity, however, are conviction and regret that emerge in a monologue describing Smiley’s one meeting with his nemesis, the Soviet intelligence officer Karla. It’s the closest Oldman gets to an Oscar clip, but the moment is masterful, illuminating the rest of the restrained performance.
The film makes clear that spies who emote freely don’t last long as spies. Neither do spies who care about people they meet in their work — like Hardy’s character, whose reckless energy serves as a welcome contrast to the rest of the cast.
Tinker Tailor is a tense, secretive movie about secretive people — a mystery where stray details actually do matter, and one of those films that improve with repeat viewings. Like Oldman’s performance, it’s oblique and evasive, but far from empty. So come alert.