Moviegoers won’t see James Bond return to the big screen for another year, but their appetite for espionage films (particularly British ones) should be whetted with “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” a brooding, complex and tense adaptation of the John le Carré novel of the same name.
High-ranking “Circus” (the code name for British Intelligence) official George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is forced into retirement after an operation goes wrong in Hungary. It doesn’t last long, however, as he is tasked with covertly investigating an allegation that there is a long-term Soviet mole at the head of the Circus. Smiley probes this dangerous mystery further as the spy, who is aware that his cover is close to being blown, attempts to cover his tracks.
Le Carré, who once described Bond as a “neo-fascist gangster,” wrote “Tinker Tailor” and his other novels as more realistic representations of British espionage during the Cold War compared to Ian Fleming’s more fantastical and popular series. That being said, Smiley –– or any other agent for the matter –– never trots around the globe wooing women, utilizing special gadgets, ordering shaken Martinis and generally making a mess of international relations.
Instead, the world of “Tinker Tailor” sharply contrasts that of the suave 007. The film is set primarily in England, and Smiley spends about as much time adjusting to retirement and thinking about his wife (who has left him) as he does with his investigation. Moreover, since he is conducting this case in secret and subsequently cannot even step into Circus headquarters, he employs agents like Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) to carry out the risky work while he pieces this intriguing puzzle together.
Nevertheless, “Tinker Tailor” manages to be a riveting film in spite of its lack of action sequences, which are normally a necessary staple in the espionage film genre. As Smiley delves deeper into this mystery, it becomes more complex and grand, and bigger, terrible secrets are slowly revealed. Furthermore, the emphasis on character development truly exposes the film’s human element, as it explores the characters’ personal lives and how their work affects them.
As compelling as the film is, it does move at a quicker pace than it should. It’s difficult to get into the film until it approaches the half hour mark, and even then, plot twists are revealed without enough sufficient buildup. It certainly wouldn’t harm the film overall if it were to be about fifteen minutes longer, as it would open up room to further build some of the more minor characters and grace the twists with a stronger “oomph.”
The cast, led by an impassive and soft-spoken Oldman, are terrific. They portray their characters in a very common and plainspoken manner, which certainly fits snugly in le Carré’s world of espionage.
“Tinker Tailor” boasts some fine technical achievements as well. A grayish gloom appears to cloud every scene, which complements the Cold War’s turbid nature. The variety of suits worn by those who work in the Circus augments their uptight manner and indicates the film’s overall enthusiastic attention to period detail.
Though George Smiley and co. aren’t as flashy as Bond, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” succeeds in bringing forth a realistic portrayal of Cold War espionage with the right amount of nerve-wracking tension and combining it with emotional humanity.
Rating: 4 out of 5