Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
If there is one thing a Cold War is good for it is spy thrillers. That is why even the newer James Bond films are left hurting for convincing villains. Communism, at least the way it was practiced behind the Iron Curtain, was the anathema of everything modern Western civilization stood for. You didn't need a moustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash when you had at your disposal a hive mind of political fanatics that spit bullets and political dialectic equally.
We now know that things were more than a little different than we thought, but the outrageous fear both sides had for each other (usually based on exaggerated claims themselves or individual bad actors) made for some great stories. Even to this day, if you want to do a spy story right, setting back in the days of the Cold War (like the television show The Americans). There is only so much shadowy organizations like SPECTRE or Hydra can do on their own, after all.
This new version of John Le Carre's classic espionage novel carries us back to 1973. Control (John Hurt), the head of Britain's MI6, sends Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary to meet with a contact who is to facilitate the defection of a Hungarian General who has information on a mole in British Intelligence that is funneling info to Control's rival in the KGB, Karla. Not everyone is convinced the mole exists, but Control's fears are justified when Karla springs a trap on Prideaux, capturing him and leading to a diplomatic crisis that ultimately leads to Control and his right-had man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), being forced into retirement.
While Control ultimately ends his own life, Smiley is called back to unofficial duty by Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), the representative of the ministry overseeing the intelligence service. It is now obvious that the mole is real, and since Smiley is now on the outside, he appears to be the one most equipped to fish him out. His partner in the project is Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), an employee of the service that oversees field agents. One such agent, Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy), is on the run both from the Russians and the British - the former knowing that he got information on the mole from the wife (Svetlana Khodchenkova) if a low-level Soviet diplomat in Turkey, the latter thinking that he defected and murdered the head of his field office.
As Smiley begins to investigate, he soon discovers an off-the-books operation called Witchcraft, in which a house has been rented in order to receive intelligence from a high-level Soviet diplomat in the UK. The operation was put together by Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), who took over Control's position in the agency. It turns out that Alleline was doing an end-run on Control, setting it up as well as looking for the opportunity to push the older man out, and hoping to use the intelligence to further cooperation with the CIA. Prideaux, who is now a teacher at a country school, reviews to Smiley that Control suspected everyone in his inner circle of being the mole, including Smiley himself. And, in fact, when Smiley begins to manipulate things to flush out the mole, it at first looks like all the remaining bosses at MI6 may somehow be involved.
Resorting to desperate means, Smiley decides to send Tarr to France, since the Soviets made a £30,000 deposit into an account in Tarr's name to make it appear as if he had defected. As soon as Tarr arrives the London office is notified, and Smiley and Guillam head to the house where the meetings take place to nab the person - or persons - involved in giving information to Karla.
I have to state that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not a fast-paced, Bond-style thriller. It's not even really about the same pace as Alfred Hitchcock's espionage films. Instead, Tomas Alfredson, directing his first English-language film after gaining international attention with his vampire film Let the Right One In, uses a deliberately slow pace to introduce the story. Smiley himself doesn't say a word until about 20 minutes in, and the true plot begins shortly after. Characters are introduced, and it takes a while in some cases to figure out who is who. This largely works, but I understand how it has confused and frustrated many viewers.
That doesn't mean there isn't action. When there is, it's often quick and brutal, much like in Alfredson's previous film. The truth is Le Carre's novel isn't specifically focused on action either, but on the metaphorical chess game and one-upmanship between Smiley and his unseen rival, Karla. Smiley has the advantage of having met Karla shortly after the end of World War II, but also the disadvantage of having revealed too much during the meeting - something that comes back to bite Smiley in his search for the mole.
In the past Gary Oldman has been known for his tendency to chew the scenery, playing bad guys to the hilt in Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element. It's fitting that in recent years his performances have become known for being more subtle, and for him being somewhat of a chameleon. Subtle is everything Smiley is. He is dangerous in his own way, but it's largely cerebral, with some very human vulnerabilities. His cold professionalism puts him on the outs with "younger" members of the intelligence service, but ultimately proves to be its saving grace. The best an actor can do is make the audience forget that it is "so-and-so" playing the role, and Oldman is quite successful here.
The movie is filled with strong performances from everyone else involved, as could be expected from a cast that includes John Hurt, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth and others. Despite being released nationally, and having a Swedish director, this is still a distinctly British film, so the actors present are there because they are some of the best, and not just because they were looking for names U.S. audiences would recognize. In fact, a number of them had not played their iconic roles at this point.
Not only is this a fine adaptation of John Le Carre's novel, but it is also a sign that some of the old method's of making a movie are not necessarily lost. Alfredson's follow-up to this movie, The Snowman, was a major misstep, but it would be nice to see him revisit the other novels in Le Carre's series, and to see Oldman return in the role.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Time: 122 minutes
Starring: Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Colin Firth
Director: Tomas Alfredson