Gary Oldman as George Smiley
Colin Firth as Bill Haydon
Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr
John Hurt as Control
Toby Jones as Percy Alleline
Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux
Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam
Ciarán Hinds as Roy Bland
David Dencik as Toby Esterhase
Philip Martin Brown as Tufty Thesinger
Kathy Burke as Connie Sachs
Amanda Fairbank-Hynes as Belinda
Stephen Graham as Jerry Westerby
Konstantin Khabenskiy as Polyakov
Svetlana Khodchenkova as Irina
Jamie Thomas King as Kasper
Tomasz Kowalski as Boris
Sarah Linda as Miss Robinson
Roger Lloyd-Pack as Mendel
Simon McBurney as Oliver Lacon
Christian McKay as Mackelvore
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
After being retired early, British Secret Service agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) discovers there’s a mole in the department and along with fellow agent Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), they start investigating and interrogating anyone who might have information that can reinforce the security of the agency.
John Le Carré’s look into the British Secret Service during the years when the Cold War with Russia was at its height came at an opportune time when no one could be trusted and there was a constant struggle to get assets and information that might give one side an edge over the other. 37 years since its publication and 31 years since the classic television adaptation, it may not seem nearly as relevant even if current governments still go through the same efforts to get intelligence, from friends and enemy alike.
As the story opens, the British Secret Service is led by John Hurt’s Control, who passes away leaving a lot of questions about a traitor in their midst, a mole passing information to the Russians. Control’s right-hand man (and Le Carré’s popular hero) George Smiley (Gary Oldman) has been prematurely retired along with a number of other agents but with suspicious raised about someone leaking information across the Iron Curtain, Smiley starts an investigation, as it’s confirmed by Ricki Tarr, an agent played by Tom Hardy, who seems to know more than anyone else about something called “Operation Witchcraft.”
It may take a good hour or more before you figure out what’s really going on, as Americans who haven’t read Le Carré’s work may have difficult getting into the material due to terms used that are never explained like “The Circus.” It’s also never quite clear what all the different characters and subplots have to do with one another, so when Hardy’s agent tells George about falling for a female Russian agent in Istanbul, it’s not quite clear what it has to do with the killing of another agent in Hungary as the film begins. And when we see that agent teaching school kids at a private school, we wonder why this seemed important to the story.
Working from a solid enough script by Peter Straughn and the late Bridget O’Connor, subtlety is certainly director Tomas Alfredson’s forté and he’s capable of creating a very specific tone accompanied by impeccable shots that make for stunning visuals. The skillful score by Alberto Iglesias also goes a long way to establishing an appropriately retro mood. Even so, these alone don’t do enough to form a fully realized film, and it’s even stranger seeing this so soon after Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar,” which has similar issues. Part of the problem is that the results feel very British, which is both a positive and a negative – the former because it gives the whole thing a lot more weight, but it also feels too staid and serious, involving a lot of talking but not much in terms of fireworks, either emotional or otherwise. While it’s not hard to figure out what everyone’s discussing, the amount of focus and thought that needs to be put into keeping track of what’s going on ultimately never pays off.
Alfredson does have a terrific cast though, and watching the likes of Gary Oldman and John Hurt and Colin Firth and Ciaran Hinds and Toby Jones sitting in a room talking does have its merits. Oldman’s performance is really the core of what’s generally an ensemble piece, but it’s a subdued role with very little fireworks until midway through the film when he gives a terrific monologue where he tells another agent a seemingly mundane story about giving a Russian ally a pack of cigarettes, which is what helps him figure out what is really going on. It’s a pivotal moment in the film but it’s really the only “Oscar moment” for the actor many thought as a possible frontrunner in the category.
There are equally strong supporting performances by Tom Hardy, Mark Strong and Colin Firth, but none of them are on screen long enough to really get a grasp on their characters. Toby Jones’ Scottish accent tends to be distracting, while others go a bit overboard on the histrionics. There also seems to be more going on under the surface between the characters played by Firth and Strong, hinting at a possible homosexual relationship, but it’s only touched upon and it’s frustrating how much is left open. Ultimately, there are too many characters and subplots and way too much dialogue with not enough going on to warrant the over two-hour running time, especially all the into flashbacks about George discovering why his wife Anne left him after catching her with another man. As long as the movie feels, it almost needs another hour to really deliver satisfying resolutions to every storyline, which may be why doing it as a mini-series made more sense initially.
The Bottom Line:
“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” has so much potential, but its frustrating miasma of a plot doesn’t necessarily translate to a single film, and trying to keep track of what’s going on tends to detract from generally solid performances from some of Britain’s finest. Anyone going into this spy thriller looking for even a modicum of action will likely be disappointed in how Le Carré’s novel only translates into only a halfway good film.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, December 9 and in other cities on December 16.