TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, and Ciaran Hinds. Directed by Tomas Alfredson. Rated MA 15+. Restricted. (Strong violence). 128 min.
Filmed in London, Budapest and Istanbul, this movie is based on the 1974 book of the same name by John le Carre. The film premiered at the 2011 Venice International Film Festival, and condenses a highly complex book to its bare essentials, and gives his novel a broodingly distinctive stamp.
The film is set in London in the early 1970s. A Cold War spy, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), who has been disgraced as a spy, is rehired and pressured to help uncover a Russian double-agent working inside the British Intelligence in a unit known as the “Circus”. The Circus is at the highest level of the British Secret Intelligent Service, and a mole has been in its ranks for years. At the time, the Circus was headed by Control (John Hurt), and Smiley has been given the job of uncovering the traitor.
In the opening moments of the film, a British agent (Mark Strong), sent by Control, is shot and captured during a mission to Hungary. The captured spy is later repatriated, and Control is stood down and replaced, but what happens indicates that someone on the inside is feeding intelligence to the Soviets. We don’t know whether it is Tinker (Toby Jones), Tailor (Colin Firth), or Soldier (Ciaran Hinds), or maybe Smiley himself. All of them are vulnerable enough to make spying for the other side a very real possibility.
This is a cool, measured British production with a wonderful cast. It is not a fast-paced film that has moments of great excitement. There are no chase sequences, and it reserves special moments for the use of guns. Violent killings occur in high impact scenes, and they are sudden. Gary Oldman is exceptional as Smiley, who negotiates the dark underworld of the secret intelligence service. He and the other actors in the movie underplay their roles, highlighting the film’s measured pace. Clues to the unravelling of the plot are conveyed implicitly in subtle expressions and glances, and the movie’s slow-burning tension is mostly conveyed in hints.
This is British cinema with class, and the viewer is taken through all the entanglements to try and work out who is leaking intelligence to the Russians. The cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema, who worked with the director of this film in “Let the Right One In” (2008), is stunning. He sparingly uses colour that could distract from the drabness and shallowness of the treachery, and he has a brilliant flair for including seemingly irrelevant detail both at the periphery and at the very centre of patterned shots. The slowness of the film reinforces its period-look.
Nothing in the plot is very easy to follow, and this is a demanding film for the viewer with its multiple twists and turns. However, it is an absorbing movie that captures perfectly the emotional coldness of Cold War espionage. There are some major departures from le Carre’s novel, but the chill of it all is translated to the screen masterfully by Swedish director, Tomas Alfredson. The film is clever enough to keep one guessing and thinking throughout, but it is the journey of people who have cold lives that matters in this movie, not what finally happens to them.
Frequently, events and people in the film are seen from a distance, through window panes and into bedrooms, which accentuates the feeling of life being spied upon. A little reminiscent of “The Conversation” (1974), the movie leaves you despondent that people could sink to such depths, but it makes the point that for some people at least, life may be that way.
Betrayal occurs at every level in this morally complex movie, both political and emotional. But like other well-crafted, espionage thrillers, we only fully learn the reasons for some of it.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out January 19th. 2012.