When you think of the spy thriller, you think of handsome men driving fancy cars, bedding beautiful women, and having shoot outs in exotic foreign locales. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy shows that the real world of espionage is filled with frumpy, middle-aged men in cheap suits, to whom romance is awkward and often heartbreaking, whose work is most often done in windowless offices and when there is shooting to be done, it typically is done at a distance or through subordinates.
This is the more realistic portrait of the spy life that John le Carré wrote about in the 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, based on his experiences in the British intelligent services during the 1950s and 1960s. And in this adaptation of that novel, we see that real life can be just as exciting, if not more exciting, than the fantasy.
It’s the early 1970s and there is a Russian mole in the upper echelons of the British intelligence office known as the “Circus.” A covert operation in Hungary to discover the name of the mole ends in disaster, forcing the leader of the Circus and his right hand man, George Smiley, out on the street. However, the Ministry of Defense still believes that the mole is one of the remaining men in the Circus hierarchy, and, with a information exchange agreement with American intelligence in the works, calls on Smiley to root out the mole from the outside.
The movie lives or dies on the role of George Smiley, and this film has an excellent one in Gary Oldman. Oldman is arguably the best actor of his generation and definitely the most unappreciated. His Smiley has at most eight lines in the first hour, yet, every time Oldman appears on screen, you are captivated. His performance is not a showy one, but a nuanced one. He plays Smiley with a trademark British reserve with a spy’s way of masking their true feelings. It is an awesome performance, the kind where more is said by a particular facial expression than could ever be said by a hundred words of dialogue. Since it is not the flashy type of performance that the Academy notices most, Oldman runs risk of being ignored when nominations come around. This will be a grievous error if it happens because Oldman definitely gives one of the best performances of the year.
With a solid center in Oldman, director Tomas Alfredson fills out the rest of the cast with a strong group of international actors. Great performances abound, as is expected with a cast that includes Colin Firth, John Hurt, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong and Toby Jones. There is not a bad performance in all of the cast and it all goes to creating an immersed reality for the viewer to sink into.
Alfredson also does well in setting the mood. The film develops at a languid pace. This might seem like a criticism, but it’s not. This technique works with le Carré’s plot to give us a glimpse of what the life of a real life spy must be like. It is periods of mundane routine with occasional explosions of chaotic excitement. There is still danger and lives are on the line, but our spies have to battle bureaucracy as well as the Russians and and some of their most important work is done on a telephone or teletype machines, speaking to agents in the field. It is an eye-opener to anyone who grew up with Hollywood’s version of the spy game.
While this description my lead you to believe that the film would be boring, it’s anything but. Credit should go to Alfredson and screenwriters Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor for building tension throughout the whole movie and paying keen attention to the mystery behind the mole’s identity. You may guess the identity of the mole before the end of the film, but you’ll still be on the edge of your seat during the climax when the trap has finally been sprung.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was a novel that revolutionized the spy thriller for years to come. It’s film adaptation does it justice and then some. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a great film on many levels. It is well worth your time and movie-going dollar.