Gary Oldman plays expert spy George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tomas Alfredson’s slick but occasionally muddled adaptation of John le Carre’s classic spy thriller. Alfredson directs the film with the same inventiveness and eye for detail that he brought to the brilliant Let the Right One In, and the cast is stellar. However, the film suffers from being a two hour adaptation of a complex and detailed novel. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a good movie but not a great movie.
Spy movies tend to come in one of two varieties. The first is that of the adrenaline-fueled, high-octane actioner like the Bourne movies or the Bond movies. Then you have slow burn thrillers where quiet men sit around in dank apartments and cramped, shadowy offices speaking softly to one another, and every thirty minutes or so someone dies in a horrible fashion. You get two guesses as to which type of spy movie Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is and the second one doesn’t count.
Following a botched operation in Hungary, MI-5 brings Smiley out of a forced retirement and tasks him with finding a Soviet mole who has infiltrated the highest levels of British intelligence. Possible candidates for the mole include an array of shadowy characters played by Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, and David Dencik. The strands connecting each of these characters together and to Smiley are complex. Allegiances are murky and unclear. Every copy of this movie should have come packaged with a flow chart.
Gary Oldman gives a surprising performance here, which is probably the reason he received an Oscar nomination. As all longtime Oldman fans know, Gary Oldman movies come burdened with certain expectations. He specializes in playing villains and destructive personalities, and he’s beloved for chewing any scenery that isn’t bolted down. Muted performances like Commissioner Gordon in The Dark Knight tend to be the exception rather than the rule.
So here comes Gary Oldman playing the man with the best poker face in a room full of professional spies. As played by Oldman, George Smiley is the embodiment of the archetypal Brit with the stiff upper lip. He speaks mostly in low tones and he never betrays a hint of emotion in the face of his potential adversaries. His duty is to observe and remain enigmatic, not to draw attention to himself. And yet, the performance is far from boring. Oldman displays a level of subtlety and nuance that I didn’t know he had in him, and I’m a huge fan of the man. In fact, this movie features quite a few actors who have given deliciously hammy performances in the past, but who give carefully guarded, low key performances under Tomas Alfredson’s direction.
The supporting cast, however, really allows this film to work. A two hour movie that covers as much ground as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy necessarily leaves most of the characters tragically underdeveloped. In fact, only Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, and Benedict Cumberbatch seem to get more than fifteen minutes of screen time. In adapting a story that leans so heavily on a vast network of players the filmmakers were seemingly left with two options: make a five hour film or utilize a cinematic shorthand to get the audience to care for anyone that isn’t Gary Oldman.
By casting recognizable and highly esteemed British actors from John Hurt to Mark Strong in small and seemingly thankless roles, the director establishes a way of compensating for the necessary underdevelopment of the majority of the characters. That I managed to care at all once the mole was revealed is a testament to the brilliance of the casting rather than the effectiveness of the screenplay.
Under Alfredson’s direction, the film is remarkably cold and impersonal. The musical score is limited and unobtrusive. The camera often lingers several feet away from the actors like a distant observer. Close ups are a rarity. Almost every scene is painted in dreary grays and browns and blues from the clothes of the characters down to the décor. These characters inhabit a bleak world, and Alfredson seems hell bent on hammering that in. He’s effective, and his vision serves the material well.
The source material, however, isn’t particularly cinematic. There is too little time, and there are two many characters with complex differing motivations to do anyone other than the protagonist justice. The film sometimes finds itself bogged down under the weight of its exposition despite director Alfredson’s almost heroic attempts to distract us with his distinct visual style. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a good movie that should be a great movie based on the talent both behind and in front of the camera. And yet, the film is also better than it has any right to be given the almost foolhardy undertaking the filmmakers set for themselves in adapting le Carre’s novel into a film.