Thomas Alfredson’s 2011 adaptation of John le Carre’s 1974 book, and the British TV series starring Alec Guiness of the same name, is not what you would expect from a spy movie. A “normal” spy movie, or more maybe more accurately what we have come to expect from a spy movie, is what we have gotten for decades from the James Bond franchise and more recently from the Mission Impossible and Bourne series of movies. Lots of action, attractive women, LOTS of guns and explosions, and fast-paced, lung-busting movement and high stakes moments that pace the majority of the narrative.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is certainly tense at times, but it is the slow interconnected story lines and narrative drama that ratchet the tension and raise the stakes. The highest virtue of this movie is the meticulous and intricate craft that was put into the screenplay. Adapting a whole novel into a two-hour movie can be an impossible task, and can be done incredibly poorly. However, Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s writing is an artistic achievement in its own right for its compact, yet complex story that puts the analogy of an onion’s layers to shame.
Gary Oldman is George Smiley, a veteran British spy who is brought out of his forced retirement to uncover a Soviet mole in MI6. His boss, Control, played authoritatively by the great John Hurt, also was retired by the botched operation in Budapest that open the film. Smiley is asked by higher up government officials to look into a story told to them by an agent who had gone rogue, Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy). He enlists the help of some agents still currently with MI6 to look into it, most notably Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam. If you think the amazing cast ends there, it also has Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, and a great cast of well-known and top tier British actors. Oldman is particularly masterful as George Smiley, communicating savvy and Bond-like confidence while saying very little through the first two acts of the movie as other actors take the screen-time. Also, If I had not known about Benedict Cumberbatch before this, he would have been on my radar after this movie. He doesn’t get a ton of screen-time, but he makes the most of what he gets and you can see how his presence and magnetism have garnered him the lead roles he is now getting.
Yet, the screenplay and actors cannot live, breathe, and fully flourish without being set within the proper ecosystem. Alfredson, who has not done much that has been released since this movie, artfully crafts a milieu of grays and shadows that are as foggy and clouded as the story and characters. You feel a strange tenseness and intensity as the movie progresses and slow bits of the conspiracy unfold. Like I would imagine most espionage actually is like, the atmosphere is a quagmire that Smiley must navigate to ultimately find the person responsible for not only the disaster in Budapest, but the leak of information that is compromising MI6.
In a 2015 world where the Whodunnit and many spy thrillers have made the switch to the growing story telling medium of TV and Apps, Thomas Alfredson manages to take the grey, murky, and scrupulous nature of espionage, with a meticulous and revealing screenplay, and visually form an interesting and engaging story that keeps the full picture unclear until the last puzzle piece is in place. Watch it this weekend and let us know what you think. Happy weekend movie watching everyone!