Oddly enough, despite its 1970s setting, cold grey rooms and tweed, Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY feels more relevant and connective than ever. Maybe it’s because the modern world we live in is becoming as ridiculous and paranoia-fuelled as it was at the height of the Cold War. Talk about depressing.
The British Secret Service, known by the euphemism as the Circus, has a mole. An operation in Europe has gone very wrong and whoever has infiltrated the Circus is still sending vital intelligence back to Moscow. With every higher-up working in espionage under suspicion, George Smiley (Gary Oldman) comes out of retirement to flush out the enemy agent before any more lasting damage is inflicted.
Alfredson proved his talent for the creeping tension-build and maintaining a chilly atmosphere in his breakthrough LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, and this talent he puts to extremely good use here in bringing to life the emotionally dead world of Cold War espionage.
The casting is faultless, with Gary Oldman delivering the performance of his career as Smiley – he may not say much, but he doesn’t really need to when he’s got the art of communicating through sitting perfectly still and subtly altering his facial expression down to such a fine art. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone taking off their shoes embody such fragile tension. If we’re being picky he’s probably a bit too in shape and full-haired to be Le Carré’s Smiley, but sometimes an actor is able to communicate a character’s essential essence. Others in the film’s huge ensemble cast all have their moments to impress over the course of the film, but the of particular note are Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch and John Hurt (the latter of which was once considered to play Smiley, but is much better suited as the cantankerous Control).
Though it’s undeniably an exceptional spy film, where Tinker Tailor really hits the mark is as a commentary on the futility of war. It takes Le Carré’s novel, and aside from a bit of streamlining presents things as they were on the page, with the spy-writer-extroadinaire’s treatise on dying superpowers intact. Every character is on edge as the investigation to find the Soviet mole within the British secret service progresses – the paranoia of the Cold War and threat of an enemy gaining the upper hand is perfectly communicated through subtle characterisation, with every member of the Circus looking as through they’re rotting from the inside out.
Alfredson’s directorial style highlights this near-constant sense of unease, keeping us at arms length from everyone we follow, never allowed to really know anybody. We just look on, helpless, at once-powerful men who sit slowly crumbling in bleak, cold offices and dingy hotel rooms. In a lesser film, denying the viewer to really get inside character’s heads would be a drawback, it would be considered shallow, but not so here. We are given just enough information to make our own judgements on which shade of grey the key players are operating in, about what may be going through the heads of this group of decrepit spies, but not quite enough to plot the exact course the film will take. Smiley is always one step ahead of the viewer in his investigations, and marveling at the way his mind works when all the pieces of the puzzle finally slot into place is part of the fun. I’ve seen this film a few times and read the book but I still always find myself struggling to keep up with his powers of deduction and his leaps in logic.
One question remains after watching the latest and best adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Where’s the followup? Come on, Alfredson, Oldman et al, free up your schedules – we’re waiting with baited breath! SSP