Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was one of those films that I should have seen years ago, but never really got around to for some reason. Despite good reviews from my best friend (whose authority on films is never wrong), something just didn’t spark in me—until I picked up the book by John le Carré at a sale, and figured I’d give it a try. I got maybe 100 pages into the very dense tome before giving up, but it piqued my interest enough that I finally had an excuse to sit down and watch the 2011 film adaptation, and I’m pleased to report that it deserved every bit of the acclaim it garnered. It’s the sort of movie that film scholar geeks like me love; in a world of increasingly glittery blockbusters full of CGI gleam and 3D gimmick, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a heady, intelligent thriller that is phenomenally paced, gorgeously shot, and genuinely intense to watch.
The film opens with Control (John Hurt), the head of British Intelligence, sending an agent named Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary on a risky mission; however, it goes horribly wrong, and Prideaux is killed. Control is ousted, along with his second-in-command George Smiley (Gary Oldman), in a coup by their direct underlings Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), and Bill Haydon (Colin Firth). But this is just the setup for the real show; the story truly picks up several months later, when Smiley is called out of retirement to investigate a preposterous, terrifying claim: that a Soviet double agent has infiltrated the highest reaches of British Intelligence (aka “the Circus”). In fact, it was the identity of the mole—who is most certainly one of Alleline, Esterhase, Bland, or Haydon—which ultimately cost Prideaux his life and Smiley his career. The rest of the film is the precise and complex reveal of the traitor, following Smiley as he gains information and puts it all together.
The blow-by-blow plot of TTSS is twisted and complex; to go into any more detail would take away from the viewing experience. It’s condensed from a very complicated book into two breakneck hours of near-constant reveals and clues, held together with some of the best pacing I’ve ever seen outside of the horror genre. So many modern thrillers forecast their plot points way ahead of time, flashing back to them during the reveal to make sure that they haven’t lost the audience along the way; but TTSS‘s screenplay, adapted by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, is a refreshing challenge that requires you to pay attention. Major plot points will be brought up just once, and then resolved an hour later with no Cliffs notes to remind you; the film is never impossible to follow, but it refuses to hold your hand. Considering the intellectual level of most Hollywood thrillers, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy almost feels political, daring to craft a story with no action scenes and a lot of talking. Director Thomas Alfredson brings the same sense of pacing to this film as he did in his genre-busting Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In; easy thrills come from a quick jump out of the dark, but true suspense is made in disquieting stillness and a deliberate use of time.
A film that is mostly based around dialogue needs good actors to keep us interested, and luckily Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy stars some of the greatest British male actors you could find, all of them at the absolute top of their game. Oldman, especially, makes George Smiley the anchor around which the rest of the film revolves; even when he is simply sitting and watching something, you can see the cogs moving in his head. The four suspects all marvelously walk a line of paranoia and slipperiness, and it’s never clear exactly who the mole is until the very end of the film. The supporting cast is equally talented; John Hurt has a lot of fun as the cantankerous, mysterious Control, and Benedict Cumberbatch gives one of the best performances of his career, especially in a dialogue-free scene late in the film which utterly breaks your heart.
And if this all weren’t enough, the film is gorgeous. Production designer Maria Djurkovic absolutely nails 1970s Britain in all of its brown-and-orange grittiness, making Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy both a character study and a damn fine period piece. The institutional blandness of the setting serves as an interesting counterpoint to the espionage action; it reminds us that in real life, even the most dangerous of spy jobs mostly involve documents and conversations rather than car chases and parkour runs. The sound design is also brilliant; it ties in with the overall pacing to build unrelenting tension and then pop the bubble at the right moment. The opening sequence, in particular, stands out, using sound to convey the mindset of a man whose entire job hinges on noticing every detail of his surroundings.
The central mystery of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not really meant to be solved by the viewer; in the end, the identity of the mole is almost a footnote in the larger scheme of things. It’s really about the journey, and the meticulous process of pieces being gathered and put into place. It’s a character study of a man whose job revolves around secrets and lies, but is the only identity he has. It’s about the Cold War itself, and the odd monotony of living as both prey and predator for decades on end. TTSS is the anti-James Bond; the spies here are not suave badasses, but rather very tired men and women who do a job that is often more thankless than it is meaningful, and yet demands the entirety of their lives. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy didn’t entrance me for the longest time, but now that I’ve seen it, I implore you: go give it a chance. It’s one of the most well-crafted films of 2011, and utterly hypnotizing from start to finish.