“There’s a mole, right at the top of the Circus. He’s been there for years.” I haven’t read the John le Carré novel or seen the esteemed Alec Guinness miniseries, so I can’t compare this to earlier versions. But with an amazing cast of British talent and a mastery of mood, Tomas Alfredson’s grim, brooding, and atmospheric Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is assuredly one of the better films of 2011 argues the Ghost in the Machine, and one that will seep in your head…slowly.
That being said, this movie is a hard nut to crack, and I’m not sure awards time is going to be very kind to this quality production. Not unlike Alfredson’s earlier adaptation of Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor seeks mainly to capture a mood — here, the daily anxieties, moral compromises, and ethical rot that come with too many years immersed in the spy game. That it succeeds in this endeavor while still telling a cloak-and-dagger tale of byzantine complexity is impressive. But, for all its strengths, Tinker Tailor is a somber and slow-moving piece, and, like the reticient spymaster at its center, it can feel remote at times. At least on a first viewing, I found Tinker more intellectually involving than emotionally engaging, if that makes any sense. (To be fair: As a newbie to the story, I spent much of the movie working hard just to keep up with the plot. Those already familiar with le Carré’s tale may be able to better soak in the picture the first time through.)
Given its languid opening, you wouldn’t think Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy had a exceedingly complex espionage tale to tell. It does. Like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (and here the similarities end), the film begins with a botched job in Budapest: Agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) has been sent by Control (John Hurt), the head of “the Circus” (a.k.a. MI6) to meet with a defecting Hungarian general in order to ascertain the identity of a mole deep within British Intelligence. But the mole gets word of this operation first: Prideux is shot in the back for his troubles, and Control — along with his #2 man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman) — is ousted from the Circus, leaving Scotsman Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) at the head of the unit.
Cut to several months later, and Smiley is secretly brought out of retirement by a political operative (Simon McBurney) to investigate further into the mole. Picking up where the now-deceased Control left off, and with the aid of two junior agents — one from the Circus (Benedict Cumberbatch), one from the field (Tom Hardy) — Smiley must figure out which of MI6’s ringmasters is spilling secrets to the Russians. Is it Alleline, who has an unknown source he wants to peddle to the Americans? The debonair Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), who’s perhaps just a little too hail-fellow-well-met? As a Hungarian emigre, Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) could well know top Soviet officials, and Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) keeps his cards close to his vest. Or is it, as Control feared most of all, Smiley himself, and the fox has been put in charge of the henhouse?
So, there are a lot of balls in play, and, even though the movie retains its unforced air, it has to keep the revelations moving at a brisk clip to get through the dense thicket of a plot — which is one of my quibbles with the picture. Why not let the story breathe? According to Colin Firth, the original cut of the film was 3.5 hours (it’s now 127 minutes long) and, while that may be a touch long, it would have been nice to spend a little more time with some of these characters. (Hind’s Roy Bland, for example, basically lives up to his name here — He’s too good an actor to be given this little to do. And as one of Smiley’s lieutenants, Roger Lloyd-Pack, a.k.a. Barty Crouch in Goblet of Fire, seems like he should have more backstory also.)
Surprisingly (to me, at least), it’s the rising generation of thespians that is given more to do here. Tom Hardy’s agent, Ricky Tarr, relives the story of a doomed affair with a beautiful potential defector (Svetlana Khodchenkova), Mark Strong’s Prideaux hides out as a schoolteacher, and Cumberbatch’s Peter Guillam goes deep undercover in the Circus to procure data for the investigation. They are the doers. The older, more dissolute and jaded generation are the watchers, and none more so than the implacable, owl-eyed Smiley himself. As David Edelstein noted and Jim Gordon notwithstanding, Gary Oldman is an actor that usually goes to eleven, so Smiley’s restraint is a bit of an About Schmidt turn for him. But, he’s very good here, especially when he has an interviewee in his grip and begins slowly, inexorably tightening the vise.