I would be shocked if Gary Oldman speaks much over a hundred words in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but every one of them counts. By the time the film ends we- well I was going to say know him, but that’s not right, no one with the possible exception of his wife really knows George Smiley and given what she’s done to him with that knowledge perhaps we can understand why no one else does. Only twice in the film do we see an emotion break through Smiley’s carefully composed mask, once in pain and once in what is unmistakably satisfaction, both reveal depths to the man that were heretofore unexpected. But we can follow him and his train of thought and to a man like George Smiley thought is everything.
Indeed I don’t think I can remember the last film I’ve seen to feature so many shots of people thinking and considering. Attempting to see as far down the path of their minds eye as they can. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy takes place during at the end of The Cold War in MI5, where the blown cover of an agent and the ousting of the former head of intelligence have revealed that there is a high ranking Mole in British Intellegence. Smiley forced out after the botched operation that led to the exposure and death of said agent is brought back to The Circus in order to expose who the traitor is.
Every once in a while a film comes along that feels like it fell through a time warp from 1976. These tend to be some of my favorite movies. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a relentlessly mundane look at the Cold War and Warriors. The men who wage it are in late middle aged, a collection of thick eye glasses, balding pates, paunches hideous comb overs and bad uncomfortable suits. The battlefield shabby bureaucratic offices with track lighting and dirty carpet. The film is so relentlessly dreary that it takes on its own sort of bizarre antiglamor. Smiley is well kind of cool, in his own way. Anyone smart enough to navigate this bureaucratic nightmare and keep themselves and their integrity intact is a man worthy of admiration.
Credit Tomas Alfredson for crafting this level of oppressive gloom and handling the film’s sprawling cast. I admit as I prefer Matthew Reeve’s version of Let Me In, that I previously underestimated Alfredson. But watching the grace with which he handles himself here I am forced to reassess.
His cast is uniformly strong. Oldman is of course at the center and makes for a magnificent Smiley. We all love Oldman for his theatricality, but it’s nice to be reminded of the astonishing range that he has. Smiley is an implosive character instead of an explosive one, but he contains all the force that is Oldman’s hallmark. Toby Jones and Dave Dencik and Colin Firth are all effective as bureaucratic survivors, one of whom has almost certainly turned traitor. They are upstaged by Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch (Oh he of the most British name of all time) as two men just beginning on the path that has wrecked so many before them. By the end of the film both have been ruined to a various extent (Also note the all too brief appearance by Stephen Graham). It’s the price of the job. But the movie is damn near stolen by Mark Strong as the broken end result of that price, giving a performance of more depth and complexity than I would have thought him capable.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is not interested in feeding you answers. It’s a film that demands your attention. Many have complained that the plot is unclear, and though it is dense I’d argue that it’s never obtuse. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if you can follow every thread. How much you know about The Cold War is irrelevant, how much the film knows about Human Nature is everything.