Tomas Alfredson shot to fame with his acclaimed Swedish horror film Let The Right One In. Directing his English-language debut here, with what is the most-anticipated espionage film of the year, he shows a consummate knowledge of the country, creating a very English film and a masterful thriller.
Based on John Le Carré’s novel of the same name, the film is predominantly set in 1970s Cold War era London. The story centers on former British Intelligence officer George Smiley (Gary Oldman) who is forced out of retirement when Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) is sent on a top secret mission by Control (John Hurt), the head of “The Circus” (this is what the spy headquarters are referred to as). The mission, designed to discover who the mole in their headquarters is, goes disastrously wrong and Smiley is persuaded to come back and investigate.
Before dying of a heart attack, Control told Prideaux that the traitor was one of five men, who he gave codenames. Smiley discovers these 5 men are “Tinker”/Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), “Tailor”/Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), “Soldier”/Roy Bland (Ciáran Hinds), “Poorman”/Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) and “Beggarman”, Smiley himself.
Aided by sidekick Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the mysterious Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), the rest of the film follows Smiley on his journey to finding the mole. The journey is a long one, full of complicated nuances which, although sometimes hard to follow, give an underlying implication that things aren’t always what they seem. In fact, a character in the film says those very words to Smiley at one point. I could elaborate further but part of the film’s fun is discovering its many intricacies for yourself.
In a film of strong performances, Gary Oldman is the standout, giving a superb one of many levels, using his weathered face to convey subtle details in a suppressed manner. He looks almost shattered every time we see him, but he has a quiet determination which accurately sums up his character. In the opening 15 minutes, he doesn’t say a word. He merely surveys the other characters behind large spectacles. Oldman has been touted by many as a possible Oscar winner and if there is any justice in the awards system, he will at least receive his first Academy Award nomination. Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy also stand out with remarkably intense performances, but the entire ensemble cast is comprised of talented actors that would carry a lesser film by themselves.
At over 2 hours in length, this is a film that requires deep concentration throughout to pick up the various strands of the intricate plot. However, knowledge of every specific detail is fortunately not necessary; the picture makes the essential parts clear, allowing the viewer to enjoy without straining too hard.
Alfredson’s direction is cold and masterful. He brings a sinister undertone to seemingly innocent moments. This undertone is most noticeable when a sprightly song comes up on a record player within a scene, and the subtle, dark score playing in the background. The music is comprised of soft strumming and low, resonant notes that echo in the background rather than take center stage.
The film is given resonance with its cold, gloomy setting, particularly in the subdued colours which accentuate the drab, dingy atmosphere of the movie. Using various shades of greys and browns, Alfredson deliberately washes out any vibrancy to depict the gloomy existence of the spies and the world they inhabit. There are no true heroes in this story, only grey characters shrouded in mystery, all of whom display the possibility of treachery, making it virtually impossible to predict who the mole actually is. The tension is not found with high octane car chases, or shaky camera gun fights, but in the consistently unweaving web of complex mysteries, and the hard questions it asks of loyalty and trust. There is also very sparse use of violence, making the one scene that uses it all the more shocking.
Prideaux forms a touching relationship with a pupil at the school where he teaches. The relationship ends on a sour note, but it adds warmth and depth to Strong’s character. Unfortunately, there are no more side stories to the other characters like this and this is perhaps the one note that the film misplays. It leaves its suspects largely undeveloped, making it rather difficult to care that much about the final reveal. Even so, the climax is expertly crafted and gets the heart beating quickly. Once the credits hit, (albeit rather suddenly), a feeling of deep satisfaction develops.
At one point, the camera focuses in on a baby suckling it’s mother’s breast after she was shot dead in communist Hungary. Those short few seconds depict the conditions of the times perfectly. These subtleties, coupled with stellar acting, a brooding atmosphere and an intensely absorbing plot, come together to create one of the best films of the year.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is now in release in the UK and hits US theaters on December 9th, 2011.