Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the English language debut for Tomas Alfredson and the result is a marvelously acted and meticulously directed and plotted spy film that will reward those who give themselves over to the plot as it unfolds its twists and turns.
When a British MI6 operation goes bad in Budapest, leaving a British agent shot, the “Circus’s” top men Control and Smiley are run out of MI6 and into early retirement. Control had sent his agent to Budapest to try and obtain information about a Russian mole inside the “Circus” and when a second source, Ricki Tarr, rekindles that fear with the civil government, Smiley is brought back to launch a covert/outside investigation of MI6. Smiley must put the pieces together one at a time and to do so he enlists the help of a MI6 agent, Peter Guillam, who must spy against his own to try and discover the mole. As the two dig deeper, the twists keep coming and the danger grows ever greater as we discover the secrets of those involved.
The plot is twisted and can be challenging to follow, but the characters and story are so rich with detail and intrigue that I didn’t mind getting lost a bit from time to time. I was able to piece things together as the film went along, and even more so afterwards, but the films density didn’t keep me from enjoying it in the slightest. I can’t speak for everyone’s taste, but the film engrossed me in its richness.
Structurally the film implements a number of flashbacks and the film is able to bounce back and forth without losing clarity with ease. A couple of the flashbacks are quite lengthy, but this is never an issue as the material is just as riveting and almost acts as its own little movie, within a movie. The pacing of the film might bother the impatient, as this isn’t your typical Hollywood “spy” movie (this isn’t about car chases and shoot outs and the only shots fired in the film bookend the picture; if I remember correctly [wait there is one in the middle]), but the film presses forward with Smiley as he moves forward towards his mole. The film’s pacing works because it is able to create fantastic tension in its situations and as Smiley gets closer and closer to the truth we get more and more nervous if he will get his man. There isn’t a dull moment in the picture.
The production of this film is also one of the sharpest of the year as Alfredson is going to be able to show a large audience what he is capable of with this picture. The cinematography and period setting are impeccable with some of the finest shots of the year captured for this film. The production design of the circus offices is also quite gorgeous and I would hope for a sequel just to revisit them. The score from Alberto Iglesias (who also just brilliantly scored the fantastic The Skin I Live In) is a subtle underlying treat that helps give the film an even more affective mood and atmosphere. The film’s sound design and editing is also quite remarkable as the film moves major plot points forward in brief shots and overlaid dialogue that allows the film to keep moving; while also keeping you a bit off balance along the way. The script is also sharp and to the point and it doesn’t bother to wait and catch you up, which is a good thing, flowing right off the page and out of the amazing ensemble’s mouths. Alfredson and his team have one of the most technically impressive films of the year on their hands and I am sure they are well aware of that.
Acting wise, it doesn’t get much better than this. I mean, look at the cast for this thing. Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciarán Hinds and many more below the line supporting faces you will surely recognize; with everyone turning in fantastic work. In fact, the cast is so full of great actors we feel like we don’t get enough of a lot of them. Oldman is the lead as Smiley and he is quietly spectacular. His character takes a while to get going, as he seems quite depressed with his forced retirement, but as the man digs deeper for the mole he slowly becomes more alive. (Spoilery) His arc culminates in the film’s final shot which shows us how far Smiley has come. Benedict Cumberbatch is the film’s closest thing to a second lead and he is sure to surprise many who are unfamiliar with him. Having to do a lot of the leg work for Smiley, Cumberbatch gets to work through more than a couple sticky situations and he hits the perfect tone as a man forced make sacrifices and to spy on his own. John Hurt is marvelous as Control and I found myself clamoring for more of him every time he left the screen. Not playing just the old mentor here, he is yelling and barking at members of the circus and his work over the course of the Christmas party scene is some of my favorite work of the film. Firth, Hardy, Strong, and Jones all fall in that second tier with Hurt but all are as great as they ever are. Firth has a particularly enjoyable charm to him and Hardy continues to show his versatility as the anxious and paranoid Ricki Tarr. Jones is delightfully nasty as Alleline and he just oozes sliminess for you to hate on him. David Dencik has a brilliant scene near the end of the film on an air strip, and Kathy Burke is great in her brief work as an early contact for Smiley. Svetlana Khodchenkova sucks you in, like she does Tarr, and Simon McBurney has something about him that lets you never quite put a finger on where he falls. All in all, the actors are doing top notch work and I could go on and on lavishing praise upon them.
In the end, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a fantastic spy film and possibly the acting showcase of the year. Featuring an unbelievable cast, an incredible production, and another great turn by Tomas Alfredson the film is one of the better entries of the year and one that will only grow in appreciation as it receives multiple viewings. I for one will be back at the theater to see this ASAP and I will not be surprised to find it high on my favorites of 2011 when it is all said and done.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an A