Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy
Directed by: Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”)
Written by: Bridget O’Connor (“Sixty Six”) and Peter Straughan (“The Men Who Stare at Goats”)
Say the words “British spy” and most moviegoers would probably picture any one of the James Bond incarnations over the last 50 years performing death-defying stunts far above the ground. Whether it’s Pierce Brosnan bungee jumping from a dam in “GoldenEye,” Roger Moore skiing off the side of the Alps in “The Spy Who Loved Me,” or Daniel Craig leaping from construction cranes in “Casino Royale,” Brit and secret agents usually go hand in hand with exaggerated entertainment.
As much as an author like Ian Fleming has engrossed fans of the spy genre with feats of flight in his Bond series, author John le Carré has captured the same interest in a more atmospheric approach with his novels centered on British intelligence officer George Smiley. Think of Smiley as the anti-Bond. In fact, the only real similarity between the two is that Smiley is about as dry as the martinis 007 frequently orders. His subtleness is evident in the most recent of le Carré’s adaptations, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” a complex and sometimes confusing Cold War thriller that might actually require a few viewings to puzzle together all of the narrative’s intricacies.
Still, if you’re familiar with any of le Carré’s work or their cinematic counterparts (search out “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” now), his slow-boiling and meticulous storytelling is what makes his voice in the genre so distinct. Considered by many as one of the greatest British writers of espionage fiction in the 20th century, le Carré’s novels demand attention and refuse to provide easy avenues to maneuver between aggravating plot points. The sentiment couldn’t be truer than with “Tinker Tailor.” Adapting le Carre’s 1974 book (the first of what is considered “The Karla Trilogy” and one of seven works featuring the character Smiley), screenwriters Bridget O’Connor (“Sixty Six”) and Peter Straughan (“The Men Who Stare at Goats”) attempt to simplify the story without sacrificing the elaborate details that make the mystery so intriguing to solve in the first place. To some extent they’re able to play their version of the spy game (noted here as a kind of metaphorical chess board) without knocking over too many pieces.
The featured rook of this game of high-stakes chess is actor Gary Oldman (“The Dark Knight”) who plays Smiley, a retired agent of the Secret Intelligence Service (also known as “The Circus”) who is asked to covertly return to duty to expose one of his former colleagues as a Russian-planted mole rooting around at the highest levels of the SIS. Possible double agents include Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), and Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds). Also in the already-crowded mix is Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), another SIS agent sent to retrieve the identity of the mole by the head of British intelligence (John Hurt), rogue agent and whistleblower Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), and Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley’s inside man delegated to sift through file cabinets when no one’s watching.
Directed by Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”), “Tinker Tailor” is far from the sprawling BBC miniseries released back in 1979 starring Oscar winner Alec Guinness (“The Bridge on the River Kwai”). Clocked at a very reasonable 127 minutes, Alfredson’s version (his first English-language film) is most satisfying when we witness – through flashbacks – the evolution of a once powerful foreign intelligence agency into the equivalent of a whispery sewing circle. The contrast between old guard and new guard principles is a frightening look at how corruption is able to snake its way into even the most secured venues. The emotional aspects of these events do tend to have an impersonal bitterness to them, but it’s a fine complement to the bleak Cold War-inspired world Alfredson has set his players in. The emphasis on the grim atmosphere is made even more significant through the technical aspects of the film. Credit production designer Maria Djurkovic (“The Hours”) and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (“The Fighter”) for turning 1970s London into a place even the sleaziest spies wouldn’t want to wander.