Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011, Tomas Alfredson)
When we think of “spy movies,” we’ve been conditioned to think of James Bond: the glamour and vivaciousness of espionage envisioned as an action-packed, horny wonderland. It’s telling that even such a relatively slick romantic action picture as The Bourne Identity was seen as a relief from all that. The loss of real-world intrigue and emotional depth in the genre is so severe that on first exposure to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — especially if, like me, you’ve not read the book or seen the corresponding miniseries (both now on my to-do list) — there’s a kind of wonderful whiplash: a film about the mundane realities of secret agency and Cold War cloak-and-dagger, which of course are really about humans, relationships, personal failures and thus aren’t mundane at all. Without exaggeration, this Le Carré adaptation manages to correct so much of the decades of excess that it can easily be seen as one of the best films of its kind yet to be made.
That’s because director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) and screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan have emphasized characterization over all else while not sacrificing the crucial iconography and political heft of their subject matter. In other words, despite the sense of loss and sadness that permeates these figures — Smiley (Gary Oldman)’s poised resignation at his forced departure and his wife’s affair, Tarr (Tom Hardy)’s aching loss of love, the sad fraying of Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch)’s personal life due to his career, the lines of age in Control (John Hurt)’s face, the tired loneliness of Sachs (Connie Burke) — the film remains fun, a menacing puzzle to solve full of sinister faces (Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones). But you’ll come back to it for its atmosphere of chilly rooms and how much the actors’ eyes tell us about their emptiness and sorrow. In that sense, the film is in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock’s dark early British thrillers like The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, and particularly Sabotage — ceaselessly exciting but deeply resonant in their paranoia and sweep.
The film’s clearly an ensemble piece, with Cumberbatch, Jones, and Burke especially haunting in their smallish roles, but the entire narrative hinges upon Gary Oldman’s Smiley (and, in flashbacks, his rapport with John Hurt’s Control). Oldman’s performance is masterful, the best I’ve ever seen from him; it’s a phenomenal piece of negative acting, with every stonefaced expression meaning something to the larger story. He even stands (and sits) marvelously, always a commanding presence. He generates such respect that by the conclusion of the film, our sympathies are thoroughly his even though that isn’t necessarily required for a film of this stripe — without being involved in a subjective narrative, his nature is so vivid to us that he becomes our vessel in a story that would sink any of us as viewers in far over our heads.
That story is absorbing largely because of its relentless pacing; Alfredson isn’t interested in wasting frames, certainly not scenes. Every moment serves a storytelling function, and the movie clips along so quickly, always assuming you’re with it, that it can be handy to stop and breathe once in a while. This is sure to enrich repeat viewings, however, and the quickness is never at the expense of audience involvement. You might not gather all of the ins and outs of the story on first pass, but worry not — provided you’re swept in the injustice of Control and Smiley’s departures from the Circus (the film’s codename for British intelligence), you’ll be as gripped as if you were seeped in a Raymond Chandler. This would just be a filmed novel, though, if not for Alfredson’s unfailingly riveting visuals; he already exhibited impressive classicist wisdom on Let the Right One In, but here the non-slickness, attention to detail, the pure rightness of every shot evokes Roman Polanski, capturing with the help of cameraman Hoyte Van Hoytema (The Fighter) the bold-colored shadiness and tension of a real life in espionage. The two manage to collect a personal, focused story amidst a world and action that are constantly mobile.
And this is a great thriller — one of the greatest of recent years — for its lack of glamour, its idiosyncrasy and wit, its impeccable sense of suspense, the seriousness with which it takes its story. If you’re at all attached to spy stories that are mature, brooding, and surprising, you’ve probably already seen this or at least know about it. But if not: go for it, stat.