Deliberate, grim, elaborately constructed, and extremely smart, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a dense puzzle of anxiety and paranoia; a humane portrait of people who regularly engage in acts of inhumanity; and an unrepentant un-reboot so old school that it feels subversively new. It’s the intellectual action flick of your dreams.
At the height of the Cold War, Control and his right-hand man, George Smiley, are forced into retirement after a meeting with a Hungarian informant goes sideways and becomes an international incident. Ricki Tarr, an MI6 operative thought to have defected, claims that there has been a long-term mole in British Intelligence, and Oliver Lacon brings Smiley out of retirement to investigate.
As the ringleader of the Circus, Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight) – weathered, worn and beaten down – owns the proceedings. He gives a performance that is flawless in every detail. A top-drawer British ensemble that includes Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Ciarán Hinds is uniformly excellent.
In an impressive feat of condensation and restructuring, screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan (Sixty Six) have clarified, camouflaged, tugged, and boiled down John Le Carre’s 1970s classic spy thriller and radically condensed a 7-hour BBC miniseries into a visual page-turner and one of the best espionage movies of all time. It’s an inventive, meaty, and masterful adaptation with a murkiness to it that suits a spy film; the story nearly slips into the shadows.
Director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) puts his knack for brackish, enveloping atmosphere to utterly absorbing use once again. With its hushed and methodical approach, the film rolls on toward its big reveal with workmanlike exactitude. Under Hoyte Van Hoytema’s felicitous gaze, its drably grey-green world of obsessives, misfits, misdirection, disillusionment, self-delusion and treachery has the inevitable look of a period piece, a smoke-filled rendering of things past, and wears this old-fashionedness with pride.
Cerebral, ruthless, and brilliantly layered as a Hitchcockian whodunit, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a mystery about mysteries within mysteries, a paranoiac’s nightmare of cautiously opened doors, enigmatic glances, and soundproofed rooms inhabited by men in suits with shady motives. We feel frozen to the edge of our seats, nailed to the screen in the impossible task of working out what is going on, adrenalized with terror and pity. It’s a calculating, steel-blue game of chess and an incisive examination of Cold War ethics, rich in both contemporary resonance and elegiac melancholy.
With its meticulous detail, judicious production design, and labyrinthine plot, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a movie of grey skies and glum expressions, of rattling tea cups and rotary-dialed telephones, like a smoky 25-year-old single malt scotch whiskey. It hits you hard, but goes down smooth.