Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy isn’t the type of spy film that Hollywood normally puts out. Actually, it’s a European production, so any detrimental touches Hollywood could’ve applied to it are nonexistent. Part of me believes that spy films are more concerned with gadgets, final confrontations and dames than they are in being unpredictable. What’s that evil henchman? You’re going to spoil your entire plan while our hero waits to escape your death trap? I’M ALL IN! Maybe this is more of a condemnation for the James Bond series, but a film like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a prime example of a filmmaker hitting the reset button on genre affair. Genre expectations melt away in slow burning moments of sleuthing and leery inquisitions. At the core of it all is George Smiley (Gary Oldman), an inconspicuous elder that has retired from the spy game. Outside his penchant for picking stylish glasses, Smiley seamlessly blends in with the ordinary. He’s like a specter that vanishes in the fog. Despite his forced retirement, Smiley is roped back into a life that has bared him a troubled romantic relationship and no kin.
What’s Smiley’s objective? Find a mole that has undermined the MI6 (aka the Circus) for years. His job isn’t an envious one. Years prior to Smiley’s quiet assimilation back into spy life, there where rumblings about a Russian mole being present, but all attempts to investigate such an issue either hit a snag or ended in tragedy. Yet, with the return of a hunted operative in Ricky Tarr (a magnificent Tom Hardy) and secrets regarding a mysterious operation named Witchcraft, Smiley has a feeling that something is afoul. Thankfully, Smiley’s investigation, although wide in scope, is focused on four beings that are at the top of the Circus’ pecking order. There’s Percy “Tinker” Alleline (Toby Jones), a minute man whose temper seems to stem from his short man complex. Following Percy is Roy “Soldier” Bland (Ciarán Hinds), a brute with an unforgiving face. Next up on the docket is Toby “Poorman” Esterhouse (David Dencik), a clear weasel with a penchant for pretentiousness. His eagerness to please is compensation for his lack of style and vanishing hairline. Our final suspect is Bill “Tailor” Haydon (Colin Firth), a man whose calmness leads to a sense of unease. All four men are equally suspicious and intellectually dangerous. With operative Peter Guilliam (Benedict Cumberbatch) by his side, Smiley slinks and slips into the shadows, as he methodically picks apart the men who claim to be loyal to their mother land.
Admittedly, the plot to catch our traitor can become quite convoluted. Considering how many suspects are involved, it’s tough to follow the moves of each piece. Despite our intensive focus, the narrative can escape us from time to time. I appreciate the fact that we aren’t spoon-fed the details, but the narrative could use a bit of clarity to make sure we’re safely pulled through Smiley’s investigation. And what a stylish, involving investigation it is. With the production carved from the 70’s, Smiley works his way through the underbelly of British Intelligence and through the minefield known as the Cold War. Smiley’s exploration is deliberately paced. No sudden moments of action or gun battles. Each scene of discovery is slowly wrenched for all it’s worth. It’s like hearing a time bomb slowly ticking towards inevitable destruction. We know an explosive moment is going to happen, but director Tomas Alfredson makes us wait until our heart is palpitating before he shows his cards. This kind of pacing compliments the sporadic bloody acts that jar our senses and the melancholic color scheme put on display. When it’s all combined into one package, it’s hard not to feel uneasy by what the investigation reveals.
The only constant for us is Gary Oldman as Smiley. Oldman, a terrific actor that can be found in some horrible films, has found a vehicle that makes use of his cool demeanor. Emotionally battered and wilted from a life of hanging on whispers, Oldman injects Smiley with an emotional vulnerability that is only transparent when he’s not confidently lurking behind the scenes. Smiley, with little expository dialogue, is the only character we are afforded the chance to know intimately. One look from Oldman grants us the opportunity to look through a man whose entire existence hinges on squelching his true identity. As for the likes of Firth, Jones, Hinds and everyone else involved, they’re held at an arm’s length away. Considering that each one is a vague suspect, their behavior becomes a victim of our imagination. And that’s almost the entire point of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. In the likes of Bond films and other spy adventures, we seemingly know who our enemy is. Films make it a point to keep us involved in their dirty laundry. As you can deduce, that’s not part of Alfredson’s plan. His plan is to make us a part of the investigation. He wants us to cast the same doubts as Smiley and actively pursue each lead. Well, mission accomplished, Mr. Alfredson.