Having not read John le Carré’s renowned spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I cannot say whether Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 adaptation is a faithful work. It nonetheless has the taste of a good novel. Dense with information and characters (some say to a fault), the plot generates even amounts of intrigue and disorientation. Yet for as difficult to follow Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy often is, its impeccably crafted atmosphere lends a level of narrative and thematic depth within which it becomes easy to lose oneself. Set during the height of the Cold War, the film stars Gary Oldman as George Smiley, a retired British Intelligence agent who is recalled to hunt down a Russian mole in his unit. Oldman is terrific as Smiley, a soft-spoken, slow-speaking man who maneuvers every conversation with scary precision. Alfredson surrounds Oldman with the likes of John Hurt, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Tom Hardy, all of whom bring a distinct flavor to the proceedings.
Integral to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s navigation of a labyrinth of character relationships and narrative cogs is its deft manipulation of time. Essentially, the film is a series of conversations, but they are presented in such a way that makes connecting them to a tangible timeline a challenge. Perhaps the scattered staging of the various dialogues reflects Smiley’s own recalling of their occurrence and relative importance to the puzzle. No doubt, as his investigation peels away more layers, the temporal fluxes add to a growing sense of paranoia in each successive exchange. But Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does more than ramp up suspicion and tension (which, by the way, it does exceptionally well). It also does something that many a spy story does not, which is to impart the emotional burden of the life of a spy. Moreover, Tomas Alfredson's film does so with uncommon nuance, culminating in a finale that overlays past and present in beautifully lyrical ways. The scene—a recurrent image throughout the film—is celebration attended by nearly all of the concerned parties, where wordless exchanges punctuate the fleeting sense of happiness. The reason for the party is not quite clear; nor is its placement in the story. But as the film hurdles toward its inevitable resolution, the purpose of the respite sharply emerges in focus. And what begins as a simple exchange of smiles (set to the tune of Julio Iglesias’ performance of La Mer) becomes a singularly devastating moment towards which Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has been building all along. (Tomas Alfredson, 2011) ***½