Set in 1973, during the Cold War, the film concerns the top brass of British Intelligence, known as “the circus.” The head of the organization, known only as “Control” (John Hurt), sends an agent to Hungary on a tip that information regarding a highly-placed Soviet double agent, or mole, is available. That mission goes disastrously awry, and Hurt is forced into retirement, along with one of his top agents, George Smiley (Gary Oldman). But when evidence of the mole reaches the ministry, Oldman is brought out of retirement to track him down. It is one of four men, each given a code name of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, or Poor Man (Smiley, once considered one of the suspects, was labeled “Spy.”)
So what we have is not a whodunit, but a whoisit, with the same level of sophistication of the best Agatha Christie mystery. We are led down certain alleys–in fact, the clues point to one particular man so blatantly at first I knew it couldn’t be him–but the result was a surprise to me, so if you haven’t read the book or seen the miniseries, don’t let anyone dare spoil it for you.
But, my goodness, this film is dense. At least 10 percent of it went by me in a blur. I’ll take the blame for much of that, but there are some things I’m left wondering about. I’ll bring up a few, without spoilers: one character, after changing identities, is teaching school (he has a favorite student who looks like a young Roger Ebert). How did Oldman track him down? Also, at a momentous Christmas party, Oldman sees two people in a romantic embrace. Who were they? I have my suspicions, but I don’t believe this was revealed.
Alfredson’s direction is crisp and efficient (along with his editor, Dino Jonsäter), while the script by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor works wonders with what must have been an insane assignment. The cast is full of familiar British actors: Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds and Colin Firth are three of the suspected moles, while Benedict Cumberbatch (what a great British name) and Tom Hardy are both terrific as part of team Oldman. I was surprised not to see Michael Fassbender, and then I read he was going to be in it but I had to drop out because of a conflict, and was replaced by Hardy. As for Oldman, it’s hard to believe this is the same actor who became well known for playing Sid Vicious. He’s so good as a wizened veteran of the intelligence wars that I completely forgot who I was watching. He has several great scenes–I think the best is when he tells about his one meeting with “Karla,” the Russian master spy. It seems that Karla absconded with Oldman’s lighter, which of course will be seen before the film is over.
I highly recommend Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but I also recommend seeing it a second time. I will certainly do so, when it’s on DVD, so I can watch with subtitles and a pause and rewind button.
My grade for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: A-.