In his 2008 release, Let the Right One In, Tomas Alfredson displayed, amongst his numerous directorial talents, his ability to evoke and wonderfully realise a very definite era. His latest effort and his first English language film, flawlessly captures the very specific Cold War era of its same-named source novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
The film’s narrative, despite being firmly rooted in espionage, will prove unfamiliar to those audience members more acquainted with the rather more typical high-octane thriller. Rather, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a puzzle of Alfredson’s direction, inviting the viewer to formulate their own theories.
Alfredson’s direction, largely through the complex narrative, often gives very little away to the viewer – the narrative, clearly both skimmed and simplified from its source, at times confuses, forcing the viewer to fully engage with the subject matter, often to simply keep pace with the plot. This is not to Alfredson’s detriment by any means, but rather indicates the density of its literary source. Alfredson’s direction, often oppressive, aids the tension, creating a real sense of paranoia.
Compelled out of retirement by the suspected existence of a mole within the British Secret Service, George Smiley (a brilliant Gary Oldman), working alongside, amongst others, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) is forced to act under the radar, keeping the operation secret from all aside from a very select few. He knows that the mole is one of five men, men he has spent years working with: Smiley is thus forced to question the prior contact he has had with these men.
The film rests entirely upon Oldman’s performance; this is Smiley’s story, everything we witness is through his experience, with others both confessing and conferring through him. Oldman’s Smiley is a master-class in the art of subtle acting. His Smiley betrays little emotion for much of the film’s duration, ensuring in turn, through this lack of discernible emotion, that the very few scenes in which real feeling is unveiled is made all the more devastating and affecting.
The rest of the cast are certainly as equally flawless: Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy, a magnetic Ricki Tarr, are especially engaging within the little screen-time afforded. Hardy’s character-arc in particular creates much of the film’s much needed emotional core: Tarr’s affecting story acts as a relief, depicting deep-felt sentiment in an otherwise often austere environment.
There can surely be little doubt that this is Oldman’s film, his Smiley’s mannered nature belies a wealth of affection and hurt: all the more moving through his failure to recognise it.