When a film has so many attributes—including superior performances and a tangible sense of time, place, and atmosphere—it’s tempting to overlook its shortcomings. That wouldn’t be honest, but at least I can begin on a positive note. From the casting of Gary Oldman as veteran MI6 agent George Smiley to the depiction of life in the espionage community of the 1970s, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy delivers the goods. Fans of spy novels in general, and John Le Carré in particular, should be eminently pleased. What’s more, admirers of Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In will be happy to see that he and his cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema have brought the same keen eye to this material that made their work on that vampire movie so striking.
But in their desire to depict the day-to-day doings of a top-level spy, Alfredson and company have forgotten to maintain the kind of energy that’s vital to a film as densely-plotted as this. There’s nothing wrong with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that a well-placed shot of adrenaline couldn’t fix.
The story is perfectly set up: after a botched mission, the head of MI6, known as Control, is booted out of the agency along with his number-one man, Smiley. Soon after the shakeup, a government official approaches Smiley to take on a uniquely challenging assignment: to find a mole who has worked his way to the highest echelon of the service. Who can it be?
Having portrayed so many flamboyant, far-out characters over the years, Oldman might seem an unusual choice for Smiley, but as usual he has transformed himself completely, and his stillness speaks volumes. This is a perfectly-measured performance. (It may not erase many people’s memories of Alec Guinness in the role, but that’s unavoidable.) He is surrounded by an exceptional and well-chosen ensemble led by John Hurt, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, David Dencik, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor have managed to incorporate a daunting amount of detail into their screenplay…but if your concentration wanes, even for a moment, you may lose your way. The sheer accumulation of incidents makes the film’s occasional lethargy all the more noticeable. But the essence of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is found in the big picture, not the specifics. As director Alfredson says in a published note, “I think we’ve made a film about loyalty and ideals, values that are extremely relevant—perhaps mostly because they are so rare these days?”