Tinker Tailor Solider Spy categorically fits into the spy genre, but not necessarily. By today’s standards, spy thrillers contain a run-and-gun mentality, driven by suave personas, flashy cars, exotic women and exhilarating action sequences.
However, Thomas Alfredson (director of the 2008 cult hit Let the Right One In) takes a more grounded and intellectual approach with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The film may not be as grandiose and exciting as say Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, but the ultimate cinematic reward is much greater.
With the Cold War lingering over England in the 1970s, the film’s dramatic and serious tone is set from the opening scene. George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is our protagonist. At one time he was near the top of the Circus (a nickname for the British intelligence service). But after a failed operation in Budapest — which is the captivating opening scene — Smiley is forced into a bleak retirement.
Later, Smiley is called up by the British government to investigate the Circus for a mole. Apparently a spy high up in the organization has been there for years, leaking intelligence and information to the Soviet Union.
The whole “mole” theory derives from a young, troubled, and recently gone rogue agent by the name of Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy). Granted the information – at first – seems a bit suspicious, Smiley embarks on a thorough investigation in which he narrows the trader down to four suspects:
Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), and Bill Haydon (Colin Firth). All four men are dually capable of these alleged wrong doings and all appear to be guilty.
If the film runs into some problems, it would be with our four central suspects. They all are featured in brief, separate subplots that don’t equate to much. Shadings of other stories often cloud over Bridget O’Connor’s screenplay and make it frustrating to follow the film’s train of thought.
Though, one could argue that Tinker Tailor Solider Spy’s greatest feat is the perplexing plot, lacking lucid plot points and orthodox thematic direction.
While the film is often impenetrable (in terms of emotion), it’s also brilliantly subtle, expertly acted, and thoughtfully scored by Alberto Iglesias.
There is no sentiment to be had here. Nor should there be. The Cold War was a bleak time – full of regret and anguish. It’s as if Smiley’s face resembles the era – tired and full of heartache, yet focused and concerned. Tinker Tailor Solider Spy has its issues, but Alfredson has crafted a reserved, nuanced, and cinematically suspenseful thriller that encapsulates the true dubious animal of the Circus.