Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (2011), set in Cold War Europe, kicks off when Control (John Hurt), the head of a British Intelligence Agency, asks agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to fly to Hungary. Prideaux is to meet with a Hungarian general who has information vital to the British government. According to Control, the Hungarian general is willing to sell the identity of a Russian mole who is also one of the top leaders of The Circus (Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, and David Dencik). When Prideaux arrives at the meeting, he is shot in the street and kidnapped. While the violent outcome confirms Control’s theory, the botched job also gives The Circus a bad reputation. Control and his right-hand man George Smiley (Gary Oldman) are forced into retirement while new – possibly Russian – leadership takes the helm.
Soon after, Smiley is brought out of retirement to investigate his former colleagues when the mole rumors gain traction. Field agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) reports that he was offered the same information from a Russian gangster’s moll (Svetlana Khodchenkova), who refused to give the identity without the assurances of the British government that she would be given a new life in the West. When Tarr contacted The Circus for a deal, the woman was kidnapped by Russian agents…just like Prideaux.
Despite the espionage plot, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not a James Bond film. Instead of scenes of espionage that involve silenced pistols, car chases, and gin soaked dames, we are given insight into what is presumably the real life of a spy: reading log books, intercepting phone calls, talking to people, and always watching closely. In John le Carré’s world, the best spies are bookish researchers, not dashing men who know how to ask for a martini.
I felt both over and underwhelmed by Alfredson’s film. It is intelligent, densely plotted, and wonderfully evokes the mood of the Cold War through sparsely populated streets and shrouds of cigarette smoke. Moreover, the film features an ensemble of performers that makes the purchase of a ticket necessary. Yet, because of these factors, we never are given the chance to get to know more than a few characters. Obviously, the one we learn the most about is Smiley. The paradox of this is that he is a man who rarely speaks; his job is to listen and deduce. A few characters are given some great scenes but some of the best performers are cast as the characters under investigation, meaning that we never get a moment from Jones, Hinds, Firth, or Dencik. The worlds of Smiley and The Circus need to be kept separate in order to sustain the mystery plot. When the mole is disclosed, we – like Smiley – are left with more questions than answers.
Regardless of some of the film’s frustrations that have a pragmatic yet narratively unfulfilling logic to them, Tinker is a hell of a spy film. Aside from a handful of great performances and the presence of other performers who leave you begging for more, Alfredson re-teams with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, giving us some amazing shots that ramp up the tension. Tinker is a film that offers quiet, intelligent rewards, sure to disappoint the Bond crowd but sure to appease many more.