3 Stars out of 4
“This isn’t about soldiers in trenches anymore. We’re the frontrunners now,” asserts Oliver Lacon, who then casually takes his knife and butters his bread. It’s about the most truthful thing anyone utters in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a thriller thrusted in a time – the 1970s – when the world’s pipes leaked of lies and deceits. Then, competing governments were stealing each other’s intel right under their tables. So, of course there must be a mole involved. And in that case, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy becomes one elaborate whodunit.
By now I’m sure the word “espionage” has entered your mind, and with that the “cold war”. You’re on the right track, but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy furthers itself as a fine model of the clock-and-dagger story conceived with some assured filmmaking craftsmanship. It’s a film that has a lot on top, but necessarily the same amount beneath. In spirit of the war, this is a cold film that views its characters – at one moment literally – as chess pieces. They are a part of Alfredson’s greater narrative scheme that, to understand it, requires no bathroom breaks.
It is based on the 1974 John le Carré novel, which was its own web of mysteries. It was also a series of BBC in 1979, which is the length this story needs. Putting it to the big screen requires, to say the least, deadly precision. Where Alfredson succeeds is in the look, mood, and texture, which act as invitations while the narrative may stir reservations. Regardless, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a movie that demands to be watched through and through, even if the story never directly engages. It doesn’t quite reach the level of an experience like, say, Francis Ford Coppola’s masterwork The Conversation.
What I will mention about the plot, oh the plot, is this: it surrounds “The Circus”, a group of British intelligence who discuss privy matters in a soundproof boardroom. It is run by Control (John Hurt), who is now deceased and we only see in flashbacks. The others include Percy Alleine (Toby Jones), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), and Control’s right-hand man George Smiley (Gary Oldman, chilling here). When one of their secret agents Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) is allegedly killed in Hungary, one of these men is suspected to be a mole. Then, they are given code names: Tinker – Alleine, Tailor – Haydon, Soldier – Bland, Poorman – Esterhase, and Beggarman – Smiley. The idea is to determine the spy.
In the film, the linearity of time is as reliable as our characters. I can’t imagine the effort it took in writing the script, by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, who would have had to polish every edge and chisel all the loopholes to create the necessary clarity. The narrative, I think, is decidedly convoluted in order to drop us in a state of confusion and paranoia, left only to feel around in the darkness. The script was kind enough, however, to minimize the red herrings.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a two-hour puzzle piece. It inspires thought not emotion. This may be an issue for some; it was for me. It looks at its characters dispassionately, but how could it not? Should we ever sympathize with fogies who make a living off deceit, ruthless politics, and betrayal? The answer, in the film’s tone, is clear. There are two characters who come close to earning our trust. These are Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), who are both much younger and represent victims of the system. It is through Tarr that we learn of spymaster Karla, who is one of those characters you would suspect dresses in black and is often obscured in shadows.
We follow a story that is about revealing the pieces, not developing its characters. Everything and everyone is of a design, and the scenes are fashioned with cryptic conversation pieces inserted with tingles of suspense. Sometimes you want to look over your shoulder. We can trust barely anyone; we want to believe in Smiley but Oldman makes him so damn beguiling. The film hones in on one major paradox: these men are so devoted to their patriotic duty, yet they are all prone to corruption. In a final scene, the culprit puts it appropriately: “[my betrayal] was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one. The West is just so ugly now.”
This moment of condemnation turns on its head. The condemned, unfortunately for us, is speaking a profound truth: this is a world of shit – I’m sure Smiley knows. The cinematography, accomplished by Hoyte van Hoytema, brings merit to this statement. The aesthetics are drenched with antiseptics, everything so pure and symmetrical that it all feels a part of the story’s web of fabrications. Where Alfredson fails is allowing us to identify with this character, and to thereby grasp the moral ambiguities that went into his betrayal. This crucial form of sympathy is, alas, lacking.
I have seen Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy twice. I admit there is little to dislike. The performances are strong, the visuals absorbing, and the narrative inspires curiosity. The film, however, is not a vessel for our emotions. None of the characters are, can, or perhaps should be worth our solicitude.
This works to a point. Eventually, the intricacies are left as only that, since Alfredson never allows us to fully invest. We admire the film as architecture. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy deserves more praise than I have given – it’s all of a chilly piece. But, due to that aforementioned flaw, I cannot deny that the movie earned my respect more than my love. I award the film one of the most sincere three stars I have ever given, and I throw my hands up.