Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s take on John le Carré’s popular British spy novel “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is an expertly crafted return to old-school filmmaking set against the backdrop of the Cold War. Much like the story’s taciturn protagonist George Smiley (Gary Oldman), the taut espionage thriller shows much but says little, keeping viewers on their toes as the British secret service elite scrambles to uncover the mole in its midst.
After being dispatched by MI-6 leader Control (John Hurt) on a private mission to Hungary, agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) is shot and left for dead. Back in London, the division is thrown into an uproar, resulting in the forced retirement of many, including Control and his second-in-command Smiley. Yet just as Smiley begins to adjust to his new life, the government–aware that its biggest secrets are somehow finding their way to Soviet intelligence–reins him back in to investigate his own former colleagues.
With the help of junior agent Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley embarks on the arduous task of delving into MI-6’s murky records. Although rogue field agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) comes forward claiming to possess an informant with valuable information, Smiley’s biggest breakthrough arrives in the form of Control’s estate. Prior to his untimely death, Control was not only fully aware of the presence of a double agent but had already narrowed it down to a handful of the most powerful men in MI-6, including the ambitious Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), code-named Tinker; the suave Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), known as Tailor; the dedicated Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), dubbed Soldier; the self-important Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), called Poorman; and Smiley. In order to catch the mole, Smiley must deconstruct the pack’s complex social network, all the while trusting no one but himself.
As a period piece, watching “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is like flipping through an album of vintage sepia photographs, replete with badly cut ‘70s suits and even worse hair (case in point: Tom Hardy’s character). But the look is secondary to the zeitgeist–the fear that pervaded society then and defines many of the actions taken in the story. We may be many years removed from the Cold War today, but each generation of moviegoers certainly has their own touchstone stemming from global conflict.
Those entering the theater expecting standard action fare will be sorely disappointed, as Alfredson’s approach is much more understated. Rather than flashy explosions and chase scenes at every turn, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” comes together like a jigsaw puzzle–through heavily charged dialogue and subtle glances–that forces you to either follow along or get left behind. Unfortunately, as the story reaches its climax, the direction becomes increasingly heavy-handed, gradually losing its previously cool touch and drifting into melodrama.
For the most part, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is a film that will fully engage the mind rather than just aimlessly wash over it, but, if nothing else, it is worth the price of admission to see such a crop of today’s best English actors working united on the screen.