More and more the template for a spy film is “action first, story later–if at all.” This has mostly to do with the new opportunities provided by technology, but it also says something about contemporary audiences. Old school spy stories are intended to be convoluted, meandering whodunits, and vagueness doesn’t sit well with modern viewers, myself included. That said, anybody who puts Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy next to, for instance, Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol will quickly come to appreciate the nuanced origins of the spy thriller. Tinker Tailor–Tomas Alfredson‘s follow-up to the critically successful and successfully recycled for American audiences Let the Right One In--is moody and stylish, recalling the lost art of skillful ambiguity.
It’s 1973, and the world of British Intelligence, a.k.a. “The Circus,” is in turmoil. Control (John Hurt), the head of the organization, has been forced into retirement after a disastrously failed secret mission involving Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong). Though ever-loyal to Queen and country, Control’s first lieutenant George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is out as well, his ousting having more to do with his lead role in Control’s now defunct regime than anything else. But with the rumblings that there’s a mole at the tip-top of the Circus, Smiley is pulled back into the game by Civil Servant Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), with the directive of dispelling the rumors. It becomes clear that Control, before his passing, had his own suspicions about the cabinet of his administration, going so far as to apply code names to his lieutenants: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) is “Tinker,” Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) is “Tailor,” Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) is “Soldier,” and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) is “Poorman.” With the help of his man on the inside Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley digs deeper and deeper, clearing the haze and revealing myth as fact.
Though less predominant than in a film like, say, Drive, there’s a style present here that could very nearly carry the film in and of itself, and you see it from the opening shot. With a subdued, yet still very 70s color palette of browns, and a smoky, grainy haziness, the aesthetic of Tinker Tailor is, without a doubt, one of its defining characteristics. And this atmosphere extends to the film’s cast; a collection of tired-looking men with an accumulated wealth of wear-and-tear. Though a model of grooming, George Smiley nonetheless carries the look of a man who has lived a few lives, every movement measured against the energy it will cost him. A failed marriage resides persistently at the back of his mind, and this trauma, in a life full of them, remains somehow the most apparent element of George Smiley’s existence.
To some degree, this is apparent in all the men in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, this meshing of personal life and work life. It speaks volumes of the emotional commitment made by an individual working for an intelligence agency. For many of the characters, particularly the older generation of spies, their lives are meshed hopelessly to the Circus. While the greener agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) falls quickly and melodramatically for a beautiful Russian with information potentially damning to the mole, and sees an exit from the madness of the spy game, the tenured spies like Haydon and Alleline are past the point of escape. Their commitment is irrevocably to the world of intelligence gathering, making everything and everybody a potential hurdle. This dictates an endless paranoia, keeping these men from doing anything without looking over their shoulder first, and that mindset lies at the heart of Tinker Tailor. Utilizing this it could be anyone mentality, Alfredson maintains a slow burn of anxiety, coupling it with the labyrinthine unfolding of plot found often in true spy thrillers.
What further sets this film apart is that, while not without suspense, it lacks any real peaks and valleys, choosing instead to plod along without fanfare. This is a choice informed by the general aloofness of the characters, and their ability to treat even the most dire circumstances with a clinical detachedness, and it works impeccably for most of the film. However, when this tone is carried through to the end, it results in a bit of an anticlimax. The film’s grand reveal isn’t treated with any pomp, and the next thing you know the credits are rolling. Still, you can’t deny that from a tonal point of view, Alfredson is stalwart, allowing the story to tell itself from beginning to end. And though that end is just the slightest bit disappointing, the gear-up is one of the more measured, sustained, and enjoyable pieces of filmmaking to be found in 2011.