Tomas Alfredson announced himself as a filmmaker to watch with Let the Right One In. A frightening and complex vampire film, it was at once beautiful and terrifying. As a follow up to that masterpiece in horror filmmaking, Alfredson changed gears and chose an intricately plotted John le Carre adaptation that was already ably adapted into a BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness. In fact, the novel is so filled with plot and incident, a miniseries seems to be the only format that the story could possibly be properly told. Alfredson, however, took Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and masterfully caressed the massive and oddly structured tome into a highly suspenseful two hour film.
The film is a rich mosaic of subtle performances and actions culminating in larger themes and character pathos. The utter skill and deft filmmaking hand at work pushes and ebbs the novels inherent flaws (in a structural sense for cinematic purposes) and makes them into subtle strengths. The entire film is a monument to subtlety in style and filmmaking prowess. There are no flowery soliloquies or overtly dramatic overtures telling the audience where to look and what to feel. The film trusts its audience by providing the pieces and laying them across the screen to be picked apart carefully.
The film has been accused of being confusing and hard to follow but I would refute that completely. If one is properly paying attention, there is nothing that can’t be noted at a first viewing. But it’s that second viewing, which I look forward to with great relish, which will reveal the deeper truths and complexities of the themes and character shadings. That’s not to say that these things can’t be caught on first viewing but like the best films, this is one that will be worth revisiting, revealing more and more about itself as the viewer engages with it.
The film is anchored by a terrific, subtle and reserved performance by Gary Oldman who plays George Smiley, a semi-retired MI6 agent called back in to ferret out a mole at the upper echelons of British Secret Service. Oldman is surrounded by a deep and wonderful ensemble, allies and suspects alike. Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Hardy, and Benedict Cumberbatch round out a cast of stellar supporting performances that’s hard to ignore. There are not enough words of effusive praise I can spare for this wonderful cast. But it is Oldman that sets the tone.
The film’s glacial pace is deliberate and enthralling at the same time. Alfredson paints an engrossing world of Cold War espionage. Not one of the James Bond variety of big action set pieces and climactic confrontations with the big villain of the piece but rather one of clever chess moves and quiet conflicts boiling over to just the tip of dramatic tension. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a thinking man’s James Bond film and with Gary Oldman’s superb performance at its center, I hope it somehow develops into a franchise of its own. This is only the first part of le Carre’s “Karla” trilogy and I hope Alfredson and team will be there to follow through with that promise. Alfredson has averted the sophomore slump by tackling one of the most complex, obtuse novels of the Cold War era and turning it into a deft and nimble spy film that centers its action on chess pieces rather than colliding vehicles.