Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Written by Bridget O’Conner & Peter Straughan
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
In 1973, Control (John Hurt), the head of British intelligence sends Agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary to speak with a general claiming a desire to defect to the West. Prideaux is shot when things go bad, and Control is forced to step down. Retiring alongside him is George Smiley (Gary Oldman), his longtime right-hand man. Shortly after Control passes away and Smiley’s wife leaves him (again). The twilight years appear to be a dark road ahead. Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) is a spy for the agency who has now gone AWOL and communicated with the prime minister’s office that there is a mole for the Soviets within the Circus (the nickname for intelligence). Smiley is pulled out of retirement to run a black ops investigation into the very leadership of Britain’s intelligence service, sussing out if the new head (Toby Jones) or his lieutenants are using their position to funnel sensitive information to the enemy. The deep Smiley goes the more he realizes that he’s lost himself in a world of paranoia and mistrust.
There are no pulse-pounding shootouts or explosions within this story, merely an ever-increasing tension and the rush from piece together what we think is the truth. Director Tomas Alfredson, who had brought us Let the Right One In previous to this film, has delivered a moody, masterful ode to 1970s spy literature. While James Bond has always been one for more theatrical set pieces, George Smiley has remained a much more true-to-form icon of British espionage. He is an older man, not spry and going on missions across the globe. Smiley works at his desk and is a high-level bureaucrat, which doesn’t seem exciting at first. The character in the hands of Gary Oldman comes alive, we never get an emotionally powerful performance but by no means do we need that. Restraint is what makes Tinker Tailor such a gripping movie. There’s always the sense we’re on the edge of something important.
Rounding out the cast are some fantastic English actors. We have the ones previously mentioned, plus Ciaran Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Colin Firth. Firth plays Haydon, the right hand to Toby Jones’ Alleline, whose an older ladies’ man that reveals deeper layers to that playboy persona. He’s a grounded James Bond, graying around the temples but still handsome which gets him into trouble. Cumberbatch is Smiley’s protege, Agent Peter Guillam, one of the people who believe the Circus is compromised very early on. Guillam is kept in the dark on some of Smiley’s investigation but remains loyal while baffled. At some points he’s put in the middle, straining to figure out who is telling him the truth: Alleline or Smiley.
One of the main themes of the film are stories and how important it is to make connections between people’s stories. Over the course of the movie we get flashbacks to a Christmas party at the Circus, Ricki Tarr’s mission to Istanbul, and then a present-day parallel story following another character who has removed themselves from this web of deceit. Each of these vignettes works as a complete story on their own, illuminating the complexity of this life of spy work and how it damages you no matter how distant you make yourself. However, when seen as part of the whole, these stories are pieces in the puzzle Smiley is trying to solve. As he hears these stories the identity of the mole begins to take shape, these stories lead him on to the next clue or area he should pursue.
Smiley, for all his aloofness and non-reaction, has a weak point, his relationship with his wife, Ann. The details of their marriage are obscured and we never even see her face, but we do witness what seeing another man have her does to Smiley, probably the only moment of real emotion that comes out of him during the film. The movie reminds that for all his professionalism and cool exterior he can’t wholly extinguish his humanity. When the identity of the mole is finally revealed, we realize how the complications of love are also involved, how a significant betrayal leads to a grim and tragic ending.