Directed by: Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Gary Oldman, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch
Rated: R for violence, some sexuality/nudity and language
It’s rare to see a film with the courage to be as slow and quiet as “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is, but director Tomas Alfredson is no stranger to cinematic bravery — he directed the original Swedish “Let The Right One In,” which was at its heart a love story between an androgynous vampire and a bullied preteen. He handles this adaptation of John le Carre’s famous Cold War spy novel with a delicate touch, like a painter creating an enormous image one dot at a time.
There is a Russian double agent in the top levels of The Circus, the British intelligence agency. The old head of the agency, Control (John Hurt), knew it, but when his attempt to find out who it was went disastrously wrong, he and his top man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), were forced out. When a field agent shows up with information about the mole, Smiley is asked by a senior government official to look into the matter.
The plot becomes thoroughly tangled, and the long stretches of quiet offer a chance to sort out what exactly is going on and to form theories about what the evidence means. Clues and plot points are offered in momentary glances, split-second glimpses, and half-spoken sentences. There are scenes with no background music, or where the only music is the stuff the characters are listening to.
The performances are things of beauty. Most of the men are of the stiff-upper-lip British old school, with almost nothing in the way of facial expression. The few characters who do show strong emotion either do so only under extreme duress or are very poorly regarded by most of the others. Fortunately, Oldman is a master at inhabiting his characters, and he makes Smiley a fascinating man to watch. We can see the gears in his mind turning, and even if we can’t always tell exactly what it is he’s thinking, we can see what kind of man he is in little things, like letting a bee out of a car, or sitting quietly and listening to a frightened agent on the run from both sides of the Cold War.
The rest of the cast are likewise skilled, and too numerous to give their due. Alfredson draws top-notch performances out of top-caliber actors here, and for connoisseurs of acting ability, this is an Ali Baba’s cave of treasure.
Purist fans of the books will be aggravated by some of the changes, but the fundamental story and characters are largely unchanged. Those who haven’t read the book won’t be lost at sea, either — they’ll need to pay even closer attention, but this is a solidly-built film on its own merits, and it doesn’t require the crutch of having read the original material.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is a film that rewards the observant — all the dots connect just so, but you have to be paying close attention to catch them all. It’s a delicious gift those who enjoy intellectual, subtle films, but folks more accustomed to the Hollywood tendency to hand even the simplest plots over on a platter may find themselves both stymied and bored.