Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the most gentlemanly motion picture of the year (or perhaps, of any year). Based on John le Carré’s 1974 novel of the same name and starring a batch of Britain’s finest thesps, the only thing keeping it from being a more civilised affair would be a mid-film tea break or perhaps a friendly round of cricket at the conclusion. Though it’s set during the Cold War and concerned with the hunt for a double agent in the British Intelligence, the investigation (and the movie’s execution) is handled with the utmost class. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson brings his austere Scandinavian aesthetic to proceedings, and it blends wonderfully with this very British tale.
But it’s not all stiff upper lips, drably decorated office buildings and polyester suits. Just as he did with his brilliant last feature Let the Right One In, Alfredson injects surprise flourishes of violence and inventive soundtrack selections to make TTSS feel fresh. He and screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan also don’t make things easy for their audience, trusting them to keep up with the numerous twists and turns, plot revelations and a rugby team’s worth of central characters (many of them with additional code names). Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is neither a warm nor welcoming movie, but it’s respectable and rewarding.
The chameleonic Gary Oldman stars as George Smiley, a retired MI6 agent invited back into the fold of “the Circus” to seek out a Soviet mole deeply embedded in the upper echelon of their organisation. Former MI6 head Control’s (John Hurt) previous attempt to unearth the spy led to the death of operative Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) as well as his expulsion, with a bunch of ethically dubious department heads (Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, David Dencik) taking his place. Smiley is first armed only with the (perhaps compromised) intel of love-struck agent Ricky Tarr, (Tom Hardy) who is negotiating for the rescue of his Russian paramour. But as the fastidious Smiley and his loyal assistant Peter’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) search gains momentum, the identity of the back-stabber is narrowed down to Control’s replacements, codenamed ‘Tinker’, ‘Tailor’, ‘Soldier’ and ‘Poorman’. Stephen Graham and Christian McKay also briefly appear, if you were concerned the picture’s ‘talented Brit’ quotient was a little low.
Only a steady hand like Alfredson’s could clutch this many plot strands without letting one slip (consider Steven Soderbergh‘s rather good ensemble flick Contagion from earlier in the year, which still managed to let a couple of notable threads dissolve into nothingness). It would be unfair to describe the plot of Tinker Tailor as convoluted considering its expert craftsmanship, but maybe the picture is talky to a fault. It’s an absolute pleasure to see this obscenely talented cast verbally joust in such gorgeously realised frames (courtesy of DOP Hoyte van Hoytema), but don’t expect to see any action sequences breaking up the expository chatter. The conclusion doesn’t feel all that cathartic either; when the spy is ultimately revealed, he is treated with utmost decorum. Are these even valid criticisms, or have we just become too used to the Jack Bauer-style of cinematic interrogation (read: torture) to appreciate a thoughtful, understated yet still totally thrilling spy flick? Although you won’t see any fingernails ripped out, there’s a good chance you may bite them off instead.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy arrives in Australian cinemas January 19, 2012.