Director: Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth
It begins, or perhaps it can better be described as ending, with the assertion that "we have a rotten apple." To suggest that there's just one, though, is an understatement. In the world of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy the good guys are the exception, not the rule, and the world itself is a dark place defined by paranoia and brutality. Based on the novel of the same name by John le Carre, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a cerebral spy saga that is totally engrossing from beginning to end.
Set in 1973, the story centres on George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a former British Intelligence agent forced into retirement along with the head of the agency, Control (John Hurt) following the death of an agent, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), during a mission gone wrong in Hungary. Control, who dies shortly thereafter, had been convinced that there was a double agent at the top of "the Circus," a suspicion that is confirmed by Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), a discredited agent who is now on the run but manages to touch base with Oliver Lacon (Benedict Cumberbatch). Lacon secretly brings Smiley out of retirement to begin unravelling the mystery and discover which of the Circus' higher-ups - Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) or Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) - is the mole.
Smiley soon learns that the plot involves a Soviet spy named Karla, with whom he has had dealings in the past. He also learns that far from being dead, Prideaux has secretly been repatriated and is now living a quiet life as a school teacher. Piecing together the information provided to him by Prideaux and Tarr, as well as the evidence left behind by Control, Smiley begins to zero in on the mole. Meanwhile, those left at the Circus are forging ahead with operation "Witchcraft," which is designed to bring their American counterparts into the fold but may have instead left both British and American intelligence vulnerable to the Soviets.
The plot of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is quite dense, with a lot of characters with competing motivations and, of course, a lot of information that is revealed as the plot unfolds. The book has been adapted previously as a seven part series and though obviously this adaptation is far more condensed and streamlined, screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan do an excellent job at reconstructing it for the screen without sacrificing the story's (or the characters') complexities. The film is tightly plotted and though it does a bit of jumping back and forth in time and our perceptions of the supporting characters shift with each revelation, the story is never confusing. O'Connor and Straughan and director Tomas Alfredson exercise a strong sense of control over the narrative, letting it build momentum but never letting it build to such a point that it takes on a life of its own and drives the story off the rails.
The film is grounded both by the firm directorial hand of Alfredson and by Oldman's performance. Smiley is a quiet character, very internalized, and doesn't get the big shows of emotion that are the bread and butter of many actors, but Oldman brings a lived-in quality to him that makes him feel very real. Though he's a character who tries to be all business, Smiley does have an emotional stake in the proceedings which sometimes comes to the surface and which he has to extinguish in order to complete the task at hand. The performance is rich and textured, making Smiley the kind of character who sort of blends into the scenery and the kind of character that you can't take your eyes off of all at the same time, and Oldman is well-supported by the rest of the cast, which does not have a single weak link. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy hasn't had much opportunity to make an impression in the North American market yet, but it's a film well worth seeing for a variety of reasons.