By Don Simpson | December 8, 2011
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Writers: Peter Straughan, Bridget O’Connor, John le Carré (novel)
Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciarán Hinds, David Dencik, Christian McKay
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an anti-spy movie — not that the film has anything against spies, but it dutifully works in opposition to the traditional tropes of the genre. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not about suspense, action or thrills, it is about becoming fully immersed in the carefully orchestrated production design of 1970s London. Just as Let the Right One In functions as a character and period study rather than a horror film, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy cares more about the minutia of aesthetics than espionage.
Director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) presents us with a cast of over the hill men with thinning hair and frumpy frames then shoves them into a series of claustrophobic spaces. It is fitting that Alfredson once directed a film titled Four Shades of Brown, because that sufficiently describes the blase color palate of the smoke-filled interior design of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; while the polluted haze of the London streets is saturated by a drab rainbow of grays. The soft focus of Hoyte Van Hoytema’s grainy 35 mm cinematography lends the footage a finely aged quality, as if the stock has been shelved in some basement vaults for 30-odd years. Besides Alfredson’s sublime fetish for kitschy set design — especially 1970s technology — Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will certainly go down in film history as the most unglamorous spy film ever produced.
The plot of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is fairly simple except for occasional flashbacks that are so seamlessly integrated within the narrative structure that it is sometimes becomes difficult to discern the past from the present. Luckily, the different eyeglasses of the film’s lead character — George Smiley (Gary Oldman) — communicate to us where on the narrative timeline each scene falls. George has been forced into retirement by the MI6, but has been working off the books for their leader — Control (John Hurt) — in a clandestine effort to unearth the mole who has been leaking British intelligence to the Soviets. The likely suspects are George’s former peers who function collectively as “The Circus” in the top tier of the MI6: Bill (Colin Firth), Percy (Toby Jones), Roy (Ciarán Hinds) and Toby (David Dencik). One would expect there to be an element of mystery and intrigue, but Alfredson almost immediately begins to clue us in to the identity of the mole(s) but leaves poor old George frustrated and exhausted as he sleeplessly attempts to wrap his head around the mystery.
Alfredson goes to great lengths to comment on the man’s world of the British intelligence in the 1970s, populating the mise-en-scène with masculine images and colors. Other than occasional shots of a typing pool, women rarely appear onscreen; nonetheless, Alfredson finds one opportunity to cleverly sneak in a background shot of women’s lib graffiti, thus implying that change may be on the way…
There are three reasons to watch Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: the top notch production design (Maria Djurkovic); Gary Oldman’s weary, detached and nearly silent portrayal of George; and Alfredson’s masterfully meticulous and restrained direction. (And Alberto Iglesias’s score is certainly not chopped liver either.) Unfortunately, I am not sure if Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy‘s meandering plot will be enticing enough to keep audiences in their seats. Let’s just say that if you are looking for something along the same line as the Bourne franchise, you should go elsewhere.