It is no coincidence that the Cold War era, the doyen of period paranoia films, has provided an antidote to the espionage genre overdosing on adrenaline, courtesy of director Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy adaptation; the thinking-man’s spy picture. Its ominous tone and morbidity breathes new life into the Swede’s interpretation of John le Carré’s much-revered bestseller.
George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is lured out of a humiliatingly enforced retirement to identify a Soviet mole in the upper echelons of the Secret Service’s ‘Circus’ in light of the return of AWOL field agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy). With the suspicious Control (a barnstorming John Hurt) now dead, reliance falls upon the jaded George, now smarting from his adulterous wife Ann’s treachery.
For audiences familiar with his bombastic nutjob roles, they will witness yet another string to Oldman’s chameleonic bow as he overcomes the ghost of Alec Guinness via subtle authority (he only raises his voice once). In one scene Smiley arrives at the safe-house that the traitor visits to divulge secrets, and Oldman paces around as if it was a gas chamber at Auschwitz, while earlier he drunkenly recreates his meeting with Moscow’s spymaster Karla (crucially not seen) so effectively that his own woe becomes crucially pertinent to events.
Alfredson confessed that a visit to London in the 1970s influenced his design of the capital when it came to recreating the environment of 40 years ago, and the mise-en-scène is deathly. Those who swig on scotch and trudge through the smoke-filled offices are dead men walking.
Hoyte van Hoytema, Alfredson’s cinematographer for melancholic-chic Let the Right One In (2009), perfectly captures a ghostly chromed atmosphere in a soul-sapping industry that acts which is acutely potent. Tarr (Tom Hardy), disillusioned after the botched job in Istanbul, informs Smiley and his Watson Peter Guillam (ironically played by Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch) that ‘I don’t want to end up like you. I want a family.’ But he’s already damned.
Hardy and Cumberbatch, hired to appeal to the youthful demographic, are the stand out supporters to Oldman’s benign mentor, with the former upping the tempo alluringly during the flashback to Turkey while Cumberbatch portrays the conflicted Guillam with poignant clout, benefitting from a conflicted re-write by scripters Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor.
The eponymous suspects (ambitious Alleline (Toby Jones), glib Haydon (Colin Firth), vigilant Bland (Ciarán Hinds) and ‘Poorman’ émigré Esterhase (David Dencik) are peripheral in order to establish Smiley’s expertise as he quizzes past employees. None other than the smarmy Jones are given ample time to establish themselves.
Consequently the reveal of the double-agent is a bit of a whimper – despite the sequence beginning so tautly – as the majority of the effort is concentrated on navigating the labyrinthine plot. In what is a relatively short duration, the complexities are actually portrayed simply.
But deserving as much credit as the infatigable Oldman and his supporters is Alfredson. Unlike the national football team between 2001 and 2006, the presence of this Swede reaps success.