Review: ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ brings superb suspense and style to the Cold War

LONDON – George Smiley is a loyal man.  A gentleman who has served his country’s spy apparatus for decades.  Not only has he been loyal to the United Kingdom, under the stressful burden of the Cold War mind you, but to his fiery boss who simply is known as Control (John Hurt).  But, within the first 10 minutes of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” Smiley finds himself without a job as he takes the fall after a mission in the Eastern Bloc goes terribly wrong.  Moreover, Control, who also resigns, doesn’t give a reason why Smiley is being forced to depart let alone bother to say “thank you” or “goodbye” for all their years of service together as they depart.  And yet, Smiley doesn’t rage.  He doesn’t complain.  In fact, he doesn’t say a word. He just tries to move on with his life even as his wife, Ann (purposely only seen in shadows), has left him.  That is, of course, until he’s brought back to MI6 by a government minister (Simon McBurney) concerned that there may be a Soviet mole at the top of what they refer to as the “Circus.” 

Directed with style and considerable skill by Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”), “Tinker Tailor” is an adaptation of John le Carre’s 1974 best selling novel and even in this shortened 2 hour version the story hasn’t lost any of its intrigue or appeal.  Granted, the picture is an intended slow burn, but as the pieces of the mystery slowly fall into place it ends with a series of powerhouse and moving revelations about the characters themselves while still giving the thrill of revealing who the mole actually is.  The film isn’t focused just on Smiley’s hunt for the mole in the Circus, but in the fact everyone during this Cold War era has to keep secrets of some sort to survive. 

Alfredson, who impressed highly with “Right One In,” cements himself as a world class filmmaker with a number of superb sequences that heighten the suspense without diving into a series of multiple cuts and pounding score.  Along with screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, the filmmaker fills in the gaps for what was a seven-part BBC mini-series by concocting a Circus holiday party (not part of the original novel) as an excellent flashback motif to reveal many of the player’s secrets and maneuverings. Alfredson also shows aplomb with an excellent cast who are given the freedom to deliver some of the best performances of their careers.

As Smiley, Oldman holds in the pain over the loss of his position and his wife by barely letting it simmer to the surface.  This is one of the more controlled turns for Oldman in some time and when he finally lets Smiley’s anger break through during a key scene towards the end of the picture it’s pitch perfect.  And, needless to say, it would be shocking not to see Oldman recognized by his peers for a long deserved Academy Award nomination let alone from his acting brethren in the Screen Actor’s Guild.

Leading the supporting performances in what is truly an ensemble work is Benedict Cumberbatch (the TV series “Sherlock,” “Atonement”) as Peter Guillam, a dashing spy who takes a huge risk assisting Smiley in his investigation and has one of the most heartbreaking moments in the picture.  Coming off his Oscar for “The King’s Speech,” Colin Firth delivers another fantastic turn as the ever relaxed Bill Haydon.  The legendary John Hurt throws in another great turn this year after “Melancholia” and the two-time nominee certainly deserves another nod for his work here.  It’s also a pleasure to see the fine Mark Strong avoiding another heavy role as Jim Prideaux, the agent who is set up in the Hungarian mission.  Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, Kathy Burke and David Dencik (both versions of “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) also supply fine work.

The film’s tech credits are uniformly superb with Maria Djurkovic’s sets, in particular, setting the bar.  The Circus headquarters is a subtle maze of twists and turns with fantastic quiet rooms for tense spy agency meetings.  Jacqueline Durran’s costumes also succeed at avoiding the cliche’s of the genre or the time period while still adding to the personalities of each of the thriller’s figures. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema helps the film’s authentic look with just enough grain in the well lit mix to give “Tailor” a bit of British film legitimacy. Composer Alberto Iglesia’s score is effective, but the repetitive solo trumpet goes a bit overboard at times.

Screened at the Odeon Leicester Square Cinemas, Friday, Sept. 30, 2011.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is currently playing in the U.K. and opens in the United States on Dec. 9.

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