Old-school spy movies rarely get made anymore. These days when you see something about a spy, you get dizzying camera work (Bourne Identity), over-the-top gadgets (Bond), or crazy stunts that overshadow the story (Mission Impossible). That is what, when a movie like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy gets made, it is a pleasure to sit through. Forget about the gadgets, cars, and babes because this is a movie about a spy doing his impressive job, nothing more and nothing less. It is a modern-day Film Noir.
Gary Oldman is George Smiley, a semi-retired spy for MI6 pulled out of retirement to find a mole within the top ranks of British Intelligence (The Circus). There are four men he is investigating – “Tinker,” “Tailor,” “Soldier” and “Poorman” – with the idea that there is a Russian mole in their ranks, an idea perpetrated by the head of the department, Control (John Hurt). When one of Control’s agents (Mark Strong) is gunned down while investigating the mole, Smiley is called out of retirement to find the truth.
While this all sounds exciting, most of the movie is simply spies doing what they do best, searching for clues, discreetly eliminating their enemies, and carrying on in meetings and discussions. Don’t worry because there is nothing boring about that in this movie. Gary Oldman continues to be one of cinema’s greatest talents, bringing Smiley to life in this film and doing as much with his eyes and body movements as he does with his limited dialogue. George Smiley is not a man to deliver great speeches or throws out one-liners. He is a quiet, reflective man, with a sad past and a bleak future. Oldman knocks it out of the park with this performance.
Oldman is surrounded by a superb supporting cast as well.
Oscar winner Colin Firth is Bill Hayden (Tailor), a man who has a strong past with both Smiley and the agent gunned down at the beginning of the movie. Toby Jones (Arnim Zola in Captain America) is Percy Alleline (Tinker), a sneaky man who has his own underhanded intentions during the investigation. Ciaran Hinds is Roy Bland (Soldier), a staunch, arrogant man and David Dencik is Toby Esterhase (Poorman), a weak man, rescued by Control and relishing his spot. The fifth suspect for the mole is Smiley himself (Spy).
It is also important to point out the actor who carries the largest role, outside of Oldman. Benedict Cumberbatch is Peter Guillam, an intelligence officer aiding him in the investigation. Guillam, comfortably sitting on the outside of this inner circle of power, is who the audience is given to relate to and Cumberbatch delivers a performance that is awards-worthy in and of itself. His doubts, concerns, and reflections are what give humanity to Smiley’s otherwise steely investigative gaze.
It is these acting performances that carry the film, one that does not treat the audience as stupid followers, but instead gives them something to chew on as the clues slowly move into place and the puzzle becomes clear. Adapted from the spy novel by John Le Carre and directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), the movie takes its time to set up the characters, locations, and situations. However, this setup is not a blank slate, instead filled with clues that come to light when Smiley makes his discoveries later in the movie. This is a puzzle movie and one that pays off those who pay attention greatly.
Anyone who watched Alfredson’s masterful vampire movie, Let the Right One In, knows what they can expect to see. Unlike the American remake, which amped up the horror, Alfredson instead focused on the characters of the vampire and her young friend. He was more concerned with how the plot affected them. The same is true with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a movie that cares more about the characters and how they interact with each other, than it is with Cold War politics.
When the end finally comes, it simply resolves the mystery and paves the way for the resolution. There is nothing exciting here, no car chases or gun fights. This is simply a case of a spy bringing down an upper-level British agent who has been trading information with the enemy. It is not the end that is the exciting part of this movie, but what leads up to it. What works here are the great performances by some of the best actors working today, telling a dark, seedy story of paranoia and deceit.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a throwback movie and is a treasure in an otherwise disappointing 2011.