Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an espionage film that isn’t about action and special effects so much as systematic investigation. There’s an analytical process at work, a logical deconstruction of the situation at hand. This isn’t to suggest that the film is a cold collection of facts and figures; in its narrative methodology, it’s a deeply involving mystery, and at times, it’s highly thrilling. We want to get to the bottom of things just as badly as the characters do. And unlike a lot of stories of intrigue, which can be too clever and gimmicky for their own good, this one is genuinely unpredictable. There’s no telling where it will go, when things will happen, or how it will end up. How nice that there are still mysteries that actively work towards actually surprising the audience.
Adapted from the novel by John le Carré, the film weaves a convoluted yet engrossing tale of intrigue without resorting to romanticized James Bond spy clichés. There are no preposterous gadgets hidden in cufflinks or pens, no fancy sports cars with big engines, no scantily clad women. The agents aren’t suave, svelte men in tuxedos with the phony fighting skills of a martial arts stunt coordinator; they work in offices and filing rooms, they have varying builds, they dress in average work clothing, and some of them look as if their years of service have prematurely aged them. This isn’t the glamorized world of secret agents, but a daily grind. There are no super villains in hidden underground fortresses. There are only men with guns. And as the story demonstrates, having a gun doesn’t necessarily make you the most dangerous person around.
Set during the early 1970s at the height of the Cold War, the film takes place mostly in England and centers on the hunt for a Soviet double agent who has infiltrated the top levels of the British secret service. It cuts back and forth through time, giving us pieces of the puzzle in teasing increments. It begins when the head of British Intelligence, nicknamed Control (John Hurt), sends an agent named Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary on a mission, only for it to go horribly wrong; Soviet Intelligence got involved, resulting in someone getting shot. The uproar over the incident reaches all the way back to British Intelligence, codenamed The Circus, forcing Control and his right-hand man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman) into retirement. The new chief, Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), is surrounded by agents who have established themselves by obtaining what seems to be high-grade material from Soviet Intelligence.
Smiley is brought back out of retirement when an agent named Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) comes forward claiming that there is mole on the senior staff of British Intelligence, and that there has been for many years. He could only go to Smiley with this information; he has been on the run following a mission to Istanbul, during which he was told about the mole, and the subsequent accusations of defection. As Smiley begins the process of interviewing former Circus operatives and obtaining sensitive yet pertinent information, it becomes increasingly evident that Tarr is telling the truth. Exactly who is the mole? Scenes of the senior staff staring at each other warily effectively add tension. Pay close attention to Alleline’s deputy, Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), and close allies Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) and Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds).
The discovery of a surprise survivor leads to the revelation of suspect codenames Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, and Poorman (not Spy, as the title indicates), all conceived of by Control. I leave it to you to discover who among The Circus the codenames apply to. There is a final confrontation which is highly enjoyable, and yet it’s not because of conventional tactics like a shootout, a daredevil escape, or an explosion; it’s simply because the mystery has been solved. Action sequences can be a great deal of fun, and Lord knows I’ve recommended plenty of movies on those terms. That being said, there’s a tremendous satisfaction that comes with nothing more or less than seeing the pieces finally falling into place. We’ve worked through the evidence and made the connections, and now we have the payoff.
Gary Oldman is sure to be noticed for his performance in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. As Smiley, he’s not a super spy stereotype, but a dedicated man doing his job. I’m hard pressed to say that he loves what he does; he spends much of the film looking tired, and indeed, it’s hard to imagine how a lifetime of covert missions and intense investigative work can be easy on the body. Despite his declining physical status (watch him as he gets up out of a chair), his mind remains razor sharp. He trusts his instincts. He knows who to talk to and where to get information. He keeps calm in every situation. He can get to the bottom of things, and he doesn’t even need bullets. He actually thinks before he acts. How refreshing to see a secret agent that gets by on brains instead of brawn.