Last week I attended a screening of a movie I’ve been dying to see for ages, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Hype for this film—largely of the Oscar kind—has been building steadily for a while and it is well deserved. From top to toe this is one of the best crafted, best acted, most tautly presented thrillers I’ve seen in a really long time. The story might not be your cup of tea, but you can’t complain about the technical and artistic merit of the film. This is a flawless movie, flawlessly made. Tinker Tailor is based on John Le Carre’s novel, considered to be his most autobiographical, and is a seminal Cold War-era spy story. Bond and Bourne were also born during the Cold War, but where those characters have been reinvented and reinterpreted for modern audiences, George Smiley, Tinker Tailor’s protagonist, remains firmly planted in his 1970’s roots.
Tinker Tailor opens with Control (John Hurt, for once not playing a loon), head of the British secret service MI6—referred to as the “Circus”—sending his agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) into the field to flush out a mole within the Circus. The mission ends disastrously with Prideaux shot (calm down, this is the first five minutes of the movie and I’m not spoiling anything), which results in Control getting sacked. Ousted along with him is Smiley (Gary Oldman), who we then see “enjoying” his retirement with a blankly mystified look on his face. But then it seems that Control wasn’t so far off the mark as legitimate intelligence surfaces that there is, indeed, a mole in the Circus. Smiley is brought in on the down-low to investigate and what follows is a slow-building and methodical spy procedural that looks and feels like it really came from the 1970’s.
Smiley is not the kind of character we usually affiliate with Oldman—who made his name on such larger-than-life characters as Sid Vicious, Beethoven and Sirius Black—but he gives a career-defining performance as the taciturn gentleman-spy. When talking with him, Oldman described Smiley as a “sitting down role” and compared him to a cat: “Have you ever seen a cat jump? They only use as much energy as they need to get from here to here.” He describes a scene in which Smiley uses an economy of effort to get rid a bee in the car. “Everyone is swatting at it and Smiley opens the window just enough for the bee to get out.” Oldman, by the way, is a sexy beast and a delight to speak to. He has the kind of beautiful manners that immediately put you at ease, and his responses are thoughtful and interesting no matter what the question. He’s a lock for an Oscar nomination and given his seniority, I’d say the favorite to win.
Directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) and adapted by the husband and wife team of Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor (O’Connor passed away last year), Tinker Tailor is, like Super 8, a throwback to an earlier era of filmmaking. This is not a movie where the spies run around waving guns and jumping over things, but where systems of informants and operatives are manipulated by men sitting in a sound-proof box. When violence does occur, it occurs in entirely realistic—and sudden—ways. There are long passages of silence throughout the movie and Smiley is a man of few words. Some of the most impactful moments are those of passive witness, with one actor observing something and doing nothing to stop or alter the course of events. Oldman put it best: “This script didn’t assault me. When so many movies go cut cut cut, this one would pause. It was refreshing.” This pacing also aided his performance, as he went on to explain, “Any credit I get for this performance must be shared with Tomas [Alfredson], because he was content to rest on a moment and let it breathe, allowing my work to come through.” Tinker Tailor is an excellent example of what happens when good actors work with a good director from a good script.
Besides Oldman, Hurt and Strong, Tinker Tailor features an outstanding cast of British talent. Toby Jones (Captain America and the voice of Dobby), Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds (The Debt, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), Tom Hardy, and Benedict Cumberbatch all turn in excellent performances. Hardy and Cumberbatch particularly distinguish themselves as the young’uns amongst the cast. Hardy, as field operative, or “scalphunter”, Ricki Tarr is sexy in a kind of dirty, feral way. With his 1970’s Adonis hair and charming smile, you get the sense that Tarr has used his wiles more than once to accomplish his goal, but this time he’s been knocked for a loop by a Russian woman (Svetlana Khodchenkova, Little Moscow) that he is desperate to save.
Cumberbatch uses his innate haughtiness to great effect as Smiley’s dapper right-hand man, Peter Guillam. He also gets one of the more heartbreaking moments in the film, helping along by the fact that Cumberbatch is such an ugly crier. None of that namby-pamby pretty boy weeping here, no—when he gives into raw emotional pain you believe it based on the way his face contorts. But it’s Strong and Firth who carry off the most scenes, after Oldman. With nothing explicitly stated and with limited screen time together, Firth and Strong manage to convey a deep and longstanding relationship between Prideaux and Firth’s Bill Haydon. The performances are contained and economical and, like Ryan Gosling in Drive, it’s proof that sometimes the most fascinating characters are the ones who don’t say that much.
Khodchenkova has one of the few female roles in the film—this is a sausage fest start to finish but for it to be otherwise would not be true to the era. Women are seen in the background as typists, secretaries and file clerks. There is only one female of any position in the Circus, Connie (Kathy Burke, best known for her comedic roles on BBC television), and she appears to have given up any kind of home life, having no apparent family or friends. However, there is a scene that rather prominently features some graffiti that reads “The future is female”, and I think that was done very intentionally. Not as a soporific, but to acknowledge the paradigm shift that has occurred since the setting of the film.
What blew me away about Tinker Tailor, though, was the artistic and production design. This movie isn’t just set in the 1970’s; it’s made like it is from the 1970’s. The color scheme is rooted in those ugly ’70’s rust oranges and army greens, the lighting borders on harsh and fluorescent and the sound design eschews the sweeping scores and soundtracks popular now in favor of realistic soundscapes. You can hear feet shuffling on concrete, papers rustling on desks, the chinking of porcelain coffee cups, and in one scene, the improbably suspenseful buttering of toast. It just goes to show that silence is never really silent and that sometimes the lack of music dictating mood can, in turn, feed much more effective atmospherics. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a superbly crafted film featuring stellar performances from a veteran cast. If you’re looking for an old-school spy thriller, this is the movie for you.