There is a certain expectation of a Spy Thriller these days, they’re almost a form of the superhero movies with usually one unbelievably capable and classy guy pulling off impossible action stunts with super cool gadgets while saving the world from some kind of evil organisation. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is exactly none of those things. Instead it’s a highly intelligent, character-based drama, set in a world that a real spy might find much closer to home.
George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a retired spy, his wife has left him, and he spends his days in secluded boredom taking in daytime television on his couch at home. He was forced out of British Intelligence when his Boss, Control (John Hurt), resigned after a botched job that saw an agent, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), shot and captured in Budapest. That changes when a field agent named Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) brings a story of an attempt to bring in a Russian Defector gone wrong, seemingly because someone inside British Intelligence engineered it to. There is a mole in British Intelligence, and it seems Control knew it, and Prideaux paid the price.
What follows is a slow and methodical dissection of the inner workings of British Intelligence, the agenda’s at play, and the revelations of how complex the real world of spying must be. You get a sense that you couldn’t go around shooting people and blowing things up like a James Bond or Jason Bourne because the ripples of such activity would have disastrous consequences. It takes delight in creating tension through simple activities, such as stealing a log book from an archive where getting caught won’t mean an extended chase sequence, but rather the end of your career and being labelled the mole yourself.
The whole film fits that understated tone, with almost no audience assistance at hand either. You’re left to put all the complexities together yourself, there isn’t an excess of dialogue and the Director (Tomas Alfredson) asks you to fill in a lot of blanks. It’s that stylistic choice that will probably alienate a large majority of the cinema going public, and it is for this reason also the film is good but not great. John Le’Carre’s Novel for which this film is based on is extraordinarily complex when crammed into a film of this length, I struggle to see how someone who had not read it could fathom the breadth and depth of the events portrayed. I’m disappointed that the tone of the film at times got in the way of telling the good story that it is.
There is quite a large cast and they all turn in believable and thoughtful performances, but perhaps Gary Oldman as the understated George Smiley deserves special mention. Oldman is arguably one of the finest actors of his generation, although he’s not been recognised by the Academy as yet, and in this film he turns in one of his finer most measured performances. With nothing but a look Oldman conveys endless meaning, he keeps Smiley as an enigma with rare moments of outward emotion and a sense of cutting superiority when he does choose to tell those around him his thoughts. It’s hard to play a dull man, but if you could ever make it entertaining Oldman certainly keeps you watching.
Despite all this, and my own four star rating, I find it hard to recommend this film. It is after all a movie you have to invest yourself in to get any reward from it, and for that reason it won’t suit a lot of tastes. If however you are prepared to pay attention, fill in the blank spaces and enjoy the characters for who they are and not so much what they are doing, then this is a film for you.