Are you paying close attention? You’ll probably want to if you’re watching Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, adapted from the John le Carré novel. Not only does Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tinker from here on out) feature an incredible complex plot, filled with codenames, spycraft, a wide array of characters, and deceit, the film also features a complicated nonlinear structure, with multiple narrators. For those willing to give Tinker the patience it deserves, the payoff justifies it all.
Tinker, in classic le Carré style, is a Cold War era thriller set in the upper echelons of the MI6, the British spy service. The film follows as George Smiley (Gary Oldman) leads an investigation into a potential mole, leaking information to the Soviets. The quite complicated plot follows a secret operation “Witchcraft”, and we learn that this all revolves around a single intelligence asset; the Brits think they’re using the intelligence asset to dupe the Soviets, but as Smiley uncovers, the Soviets are actually using him to dupe the Brits. It’s tough to explain in short, but Alfredson does a surprisingly effective job of explaining a lot of events relatively succinctly.
The cast of Tinker is, simply put, a murderer’s row of terrific actors. Gary Oldman here as the world-weary Smiley is obviously the key that makes everything else work; on the outset of the film he’s been forced into retirement, but it’s instantly clear that this is a man who has not lost his touch, a true expert. Oldman conveys the man’s expertise and calm at every turn; you just feel a sense of assurance watching Oldman on screen, not just that his character will solve the case, but that you, as a viewer, are in good hands.
Perhaps the closest thing to a second lead in the film is Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Peter Guillam, Smiley’s second-in-command in the investigation. Cumberbatch is at his best when he can play slightly more subtle and muted (as compared to, say, Sherlock), and this film fits that profile. It’s fascinating to think about Cumberbatch’s career in the context of his sexuality, and the ways in which filmmakers have chosen to explore his sexuality over the years; here, he’s a closeted homosexual, a role he would repeat a couple years later in The Imitation Game.
There are a number of characters here who are suspected of being the mole, and not all of them have a lot to do. A film like this could easily fall prey to the classic trope where the most recognizable actor has to be the “bad guy”; Alfredson smartly subverts this by casting all of these characters with recognizable actors like Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth, and Toby Jones, the kinds of actors that even if you aren’t familiar with, you probably recognize their faces. On the one hand, these are great actors and it’s something of a waste to have them appear in the film for as little as they do, but on the other hand, for the sake of subverting a trope that might ruin the suspense of the film, this a smart decision.
Also appearing in the film are three more great actors who I want to highlight in the late John Hurt (as Control, the former head of the MI6), and Tom Hardy and Mark Strong as two spies who were involved in field operations to help uncover the mole. Hurt is so great here, lending the film a perfect blend of levity and somberness, and he’s a face that we will miss in films since his death. Strong and Hardy are both so effectively used here as well. Strong wears a particularly awful hairpiece that serves almost as affirmation of his commitment to his craft, and he gets a great moment where he has to kill a bird that, to me, ends up being one of the most memorable moments in the film. Hardy here is also so impressive – this is the first film where I distinctly remember seeing Hardy as a special performer. The film quite effectively takes advantage of his angular face to make him seem simultaneously very British and very foreign. He’s an actor who feels equally at home in a period spy piece as he does in a wild action film, so its no surprise that he’s become one of the premier working actors in Hollywood right now.
Tinker is filmed in muted browns and grays and oranges and blues, a color palette that feels fitting for the era, and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema does an amazing job taking advantage of lighting and shadows to advance characterizations and set the mood; the camera feels almost claustrophobic. It’s no surprise in watching this that van Hoytema has become one of the top working cinematographers in Hollywood.
For my money, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy might be the best adaptation of John le Carré to date; its simmering energy and intensity feel propulsive even in moments when the film is merely showing a conversation between two characters, and when the slow burn finally pays off, it pays off in a way that feels more satisfying than most blockbuster action films.