A spy movie about old British men by the young Swede who made the little girl’s vampire flick. Or, a mess of contradictions that somehow perfectly serve a classy, slow-boil espionage film.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is first and foremost a John LeCarre (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Russia House) adaptation starring every great British actor now living. Meaning, even if its plot was a mess, you’d still have a face-off between Gary Oldman and Colin Firth to keep things interesting. Happily, it’s about as clean as can be, thanks to the deftness of Let The Right One In director Tomas Alfredson, who contents himself with straddling the line between the actualities-of-the-spy-trade milieu of LeCarre and the necessities of jazzing up said actualities for a paying film audience. It’s a far more respectable, able-bodied, and efficient movie than it is a great one, but it has so much to make clear in such a short time, that that’s not hard to forgive.
LeCarre’s book is labyrinthine, even if it is a potboiler, and the maze is mostly inside the razor-sharp head for intelligence possessed by one old, overweight, and retired spy, soft-spoken cuckold George Smiley (Gary Oldman in the movie). When a British assassin named Tarr (Tom Hardy in the movie) resurfaces after a Russian job with information about a double-agent at the highest levels of British intelligence (known as ‘the Circus’ to LeCarre’s characters), Smiley is called out of retirement to root out the mole. As the story is based on LeCarre’s actual experiences in the drudgery of spy work, the mole-hunt mainly requires that Smiley hole up in a dingy hotel room and sift through an endless pile of documents. There isn’t a proper action sequence in the entire book; the whole thing functions on the believability of the intrigue, i.e., the connections made within Smiley’s head. LeCarre’s success as a novelist has always hinged on the bet that real-world spy stuff will be fascinating to a sizeable chunk of the non-spy population.
The movie can’t make that bet. It has to get out of Smiley’s head and lay out the spying in the real world. And so it does. It retains Smiley (by the way, Oldman is predictably flawless, conveying the emotion inside a severely stoic man) in his hotel room, pouring over files, tracking the traitor, but it branches nicely out into a drab and rainy London underworld, where tweed-clad anti-James Bonds keep their pistols tucked under their coats just in case the mind games they love to play backfire. This is a bit of a return to the dangerous world of Hitchcock’s spy-infested London of the 1930s, complete with actors Hitchcock would have used had they been born. Firth, Hardy, and particularly Benedict Cumberbatch, as Smiley’s only trustable ally, hold their own against the gravity of Oldman, while Alfredson steadily releases a tangled mass of intrigue with aplomb, if not nearly with the brilliance he showed in Right One. Tinker, Tailor is faithful LeCarre and a fine entertainment without falling victim to the Quantum of Solace pitfall that was confusing spies with action heroes. Maintaining the book’s 1970s setting, at the apex of the Cold War, basically does away with the need for contemporary resonance, which allows the movie to focus on the acting and the espionage, what any paying filmgoer should expect.