Silver Screen: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy ***1/2
Steven Soderbergh's Haywire is a fine example of the modern spy movie, with its focus on technology and action sequences tinged with James Bond influences, but Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of John le Carré 's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an old-school Cold War throwback, a vintage espionage tale from one of the masters of the literary genre. Le Carré 's decidedly more realist approach to the spy genre owes lot less to bed-hopping and big stunts than to the tradition of Graham Greene, as well as le Carré 's real-life experience working with British intelligence under his real name, David John Moore Cornwell.
Tinker Tailor is perhaps le Carré 's best-known work, along with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It's also the debut of his most persistent protagonist, the tightly wound George Smiley, played here with great reserve by an especially steely Gary Oldman. As the film begins, Smiley is out at the Circus, le Carré 's nickname for British intelligence agency MI6, forced into retirement along with his mentor, Control (John Hurt). Control was obsessed by a theory that one of the top-ranking men in his crew was a mole for the Russians, and following his death Smiley is drawn back into the case.
New information suggests Control may have been correct, and now his pupil must carry on the investigation. Much to Smiley's dismay, he learns that his mentor considered him a possible suspect as well. Among the other candidates are the droll and dapper Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), the withholding Roy Bland (Ciará n Hinds), ascendant agent Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), or second-in-command Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). The group all worked together until a botched job in Hungary left their coworker and Haydon's best friend (Mark Strong) presumed dead in a shooting, and Smiley suspects even that incident may be tied back to the double-cross.
With his trusty assistant Peter (Benedict Cumberbatch, a.k.a. the Most British Person Ever), Smiley sets about coolly and methodically uprooting the past and learning the dark secrets of all his old friends. But Smiley's greatest blind spot may prove to be himself.
The spycraft in Tinker Tailor is a wonderful contrast to the gadget-heavy hijinks of Mission: Impossible blockbusters. The Circus is located in shabby offices full of paper clutter and chipping paint. It's deliriously unsexy, with scores of analysts sitting quietly in rooms poring over old television footage and listening to phone taps recorded on scratchy reels of magnetic tape. Alfredson, who directed the exceptional Swedish adaptation of Let the Right One In (remade to decent but derivative effect by Matt Reeves as Let Me In), is an exceptional visual stylist with a knack for long static shots and slow-moving cameras and an eye for texture. He wonderfully recreates early 1970s London in the anti-image of the dayglo swingin' sixties of Austin Powers (a somewhat less noble entry in the spy-movie pantheon); it's all chintzy curtains, ugly print shirts, and awkward haircuts. Alfredson's keen riff on le Carré 's world is decidedly square, a bunch of stuffy adults pushing papers and trading secrets. It's cloak-and-dagger work at its most bureaucratic, and yet in many ways it feels much more personal.
That said, I must confess: I'm not entirely sure I knew what the hell was going on. A frustrating hallmark of the spy thriller is lots of vague dialogue, coded messages, double-talk, and characters with aliases. Half the characters go by at least two names that are bandied about casually when they're off-screen (I wound up checking the IMDB page on my iPhone to keep up with the characters, as though I had a scorecard at a baseball game), and many of the big reveals are implicit. Movie reviewers aren't generally encouraged to acknowledge when they're lost, but I could never lie to you. I found myself wishing I could turn to the strangers sitting behind me and press them with questions: “Wait, so those guys are gay? But those other guys aren't gay, just really good friends? And that other guy was bad but he didn't know it?”
These byzantine plots are difficult to navigate in large part because there's no emotional connection. When the whys and wherefores are kept secret until the final moments, motivations and allegiances obscured alike, it can be difficult to get a foothold on the story. That, somewhat ironically, is the inverse of George Smiley's conundrum: He can follow everything but is connected to nothing.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.