By Joan Ellis
Tomas Alfredson has used every trick in his director’s book to make sure we don’t relax during Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The result is a dead quiet audience drawn into a story that asks them to follow clues that are doled out scene by scene on the way to a solution. This is no easy task. The movie is a very cerebral exploration of Cold War spying and we are by turns lost, confused, and exhilarated by what unfolds. But we are never bored.
Set in the Cold War ’70s, it is based on John le Carre’s own experience as a member of MI5 and MI6 during the ’50s and ’60s. The level of trust that had ruled during WWII has disappeared; the world has gone global. Who is the enemy? Old hands are working with new, after all. We are given just a little bit of information at a time – a sweaty waiter, a wayward glance. Because so little is revealed, it’s hard to follow; but that’s the way of covert life. We learn to read faces.
Retired spymaster George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is summoned from retirement to track a high level rumor that a Soviet mole has penetrated the top tier. This mission brings us into the upper reaches of British Intelligence and drops us into an extraordinarily pungent in-house atmosphere of distrust, anger, and betrayal. We are reminded again that betrayal by a friend is the worst of all crimes. “Trust no one,” George Smiley warns his peers.
Far from the glitz of ordinary spy movies, Alfredson films this one in dark interiors and somber outdoor scenes. The players who inhabit the story are equally dark. They live and work in sub-ordinary places. They never stand out, and they move about in the silence that is the code of their profession. Only someone who needs to know something is told of it. Judgments and solutions are delivered by a raised eyebrow or a slight nod of the head. If you sit there planning your calendar, you will be left behind. Concentrate. That’s the rule for watching this movie.
The camera work is superb. Watch for the change of mood in the juxtaposition of department parties that take place in a shabby cafeteria where jaunty music brings the celebrants to their feet in pleasure while the search goes on among them. The camera becomes a tool, in both close-up and distance, for shock or bewilderment.
Director Alfredson pulls us deeply into the dark world he has created around top level spymasters searching for a traitor among themselves. Gary Oldman is memorable, nearly indelible, as Smiley. Creating a compelling group of unusual suspects are Ciaran Hinds (Ray), Toby Jones (Percy), Colin Firth (Bill), Benedict Cumberbatch (Peter), Tom Hardy (Ricki), Mark Strong (Jim). Every one of these characters gives us a master class in understatement. Careful listeners will be rewarded handsomely – even if they reach opposing conclusions. Prepare for Smiley 3.