Based on the vaunted 1974 John le Carré novel and more than living up to the equally esteemed 1979 BBC miniseries, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a Cold War espionage thriller that not only brilliantly utilizes its source material and the film’s legendary cast, but employs that rarefied air as a buffer from any audience hand-holding or needless exposition. Even the director, Tomas Alfredson, gets a “get out of jail free” card: His last film, Let the Right One In, was nothing short of a modern cinema classic.
Of course, that loftiness can spell trouble for the uninitiated. I can report that there are entire plot lines here that I simply can’t explain. Some key characters are almost never seen, and I spent the first 10 minutes slack-jawed – not in awe, but out of sheer confusion. But eventually, Tinker Tailor unpacks its chilly distance and spy-versus-spy narrative for an effect that’s grand in its intricacies but sparse in its telling.
Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, a weary, somewhat retired MI6 agent called on by Control (John Hurt), the head of the Circus, as the agency is known to its spies, to uncover the identity of a mole within the ranks.
The stakes are amped up right at the start when both Control and one of his spies, on a mission related to the mole issue, end up dead. In the aftermath, Smiley discovers that Control had whittled down the suspect list to an inner sanctum of the agency that holds dominion over the operations. He had even assigned them nursery-rhyme code names: Tinker (Toby Jones), Tailor (Colin Firth), Soldier (Ciarán Hinds), Poor Man (David Dencik) and Beggarman. That last one is Smiley himself.
Related subplots abound, from an affair that provides a solid alibi, to another that threatens the entire operation, or perhaps holds the key to its resolution. Another, involving former spy Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) mentoring a bullied schoolboy, is especially thoughtful.
All of this madness – played almost totally straight, as if digging for espionage is as mundane as pouring a bowl of cereal – is bathed in a warm ’70s atmosphere of brown and gray, bad hair and worse pants. It feels not only lived-in, but worn out, and Alfredson’s modulation, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s New-Hollywood period lighting and Alberto Iglesias’ intoxicating score all work in unison to support and elevate a premiere ensemble that chews scenery as if they could gladly do so all day.
The key is to lose yourself in the mood, at least on first viewing. And don’t beat yourself up if you emerge with your head spinning – there’s a whole book and miniseries out there to help shed light.
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