Who ever knew a movie about a bunch of middle-aged British dudes sitting around in conference rooms (soundproofed ones, anyway) could be so riveting?
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a spy movie as if adapted as a stage play. There aren’t any explosions or femme fatales or car chases — just drama and mystery so intense that you’ll come out the other side completely exhausted‚ and more than a little paranoid.
The film, based on John le Carre’s much-celebrated 1974 novel, starts off with Control (John Hurt), the head of the “Circus” (the nickname given to England’s super-secret intelligence organization, MI6), sending one of his spies (Mark Strong) to Budapest to confront a Hungarian general who knows the identity of a Circus “mole” who’s been giving trade secrets to the Russians. Control has the suspects down to five men, to which he’s given code names: Percy Alleline/”Tinker” (Toby Jones), Bill Haydon/”Tailor” (Colin Firth), Roy Bland/”Soldier” (Ciaran Hinds, who, after appearing in The Debt earlier this year, is an old hat at this kind of scenario), Toby Esterhase/”Poor Man” (David Dencik) and a former operative that was forced to retire, George Smiley/”Beggarman” (Gary Oldman).
The mission to Budapest goes horribly wrong, of course, and Control ends up dying of a heart attack. Later, Undersecretary Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) enlists one of Control’s original suspects, George Smiley, to sniff out the traitor. With the help of an inside man at the MI6 London headquarters, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbath, who recently did some sleuthing of his own in the new Sherlock Holmes series), Smiley sets out to discover which member of the Circus is actually working for the Commies.
From there, the rest of the film is basically a series of mind games played by shady men immersed in so many layers of secrets and lies that even the ultimate truth might be a cover-up. Director Tomas Alfredson brings the same kind of near-obsessive attention to aesthetic detail and simmering tension to this chess game of a movie that he did with his chilly vampire tale, Let the Right One In — the rooms in which these intellectual face-offs take place are cold, nightmarish places where even the wallpaper seems like it might be listening. These rooms have seen and heard unimaginable things, all implemented in the name of keeping England safe from the evil that is the rest of the world, making the offices of the Circus seem like a haunted house filled with world-weary ghosts disguised as men.
The acting is, not surprisingly, excellent across the board, with Oldman especially hitting it out of the park with what might be the most restrained performance of his career. His polite, patient and scheming Smiley is the ringmaster of this melancholy Circus, a brilliant manipulator who can see all the angles and conjure a few of his own. This guy’s so smart it’s scary, but he’s got a few skeletons in his own closet that explain his particular obsession with the concept and practice of betrayal, as we discover from the events of a past Christmas party that’s often revisited in eerie flashbacks. The supporting cast, consisting of some of the best British character actors working today, delivers the goods as well, effectively playing the game with poker faces that are sometimes compromised by the occasional suspicious glance or nervous tic.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy isn’t an easy film to watch; it demands your attention as it unfolds its convoluted plot and its characters talk insider jargon without pausing to consider whether you can follow them or not. But, unlike many other cinematic puzzles, this one actually deserves that attention.