A quick note, before I begin the article in earnest. I have been thinking for a long time about doing what would more commonly be classified as ‘reviews’ as part of my normal rotation. There are plenty of reasons for this, but for the most part it is simply the opportunity to talk about more and more varied films. These pieces will try to avoid the biggest of spoilers without some sort of warning, but I’m honestly writing for people who have seen the movies as much as I am those who haven’t. So plot elements, maybe elements deep into the picture even, will be discussed fairly freely. Consider this your warning.
Recently I’ve been going through all the Bond movies for my Light Bondage project, and while the results of that are still developing it has put me in a mood to wonder over whether 007’s action-heavy brand of intrigue was just what spy movies were anymore. Sure, you have the Bourne movies, but those are even less about intrigue and more about beating dudes and shaky camerawork and Matt Damon mostly looking confused. Which is how I found myself excited to be seeing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, despite not knowing much about it other than it was reported not those movies.
The movie by Let The Right One In director Tomas Alfredson, and based on the 1974 book by the same title, TTSS is the story of a group of British secret intelligence agents in the 1970s and their efforts to ferret out a long-time Russian mole among their numbers. The film opens on a botched operation to find the mole through Russian contacts that leaves one agent shot and long-time intelligence head Control (John Hurt, who manages to cast a presence over most of the film despite his limited on-screen time) forced out of office.
With him goes George Smiley, played by Gary Oldman, who takes to his retirement with a certain stoic equanimity only to drift back in again as the civilian head of intelligence asks him to covertly begin his own investigation into his former partners to try to find the traitor. And so, ever so carefully, the peeling back of all these men’s histories and loyalties begins.
Tinker Tailor is, first and foremost, a movie about tone. As much as I’m going to get to the end and say I recommend this movie wholeheartedly, I can’t imagine it playing to the impatient and easily distracted. The movie moves at its own pace, with Oldman as the implacable center, a knot of threads that slowly over the course of the film gets pulled tighter and tighter. This is a quintessential slow burn, unfolding at its own inexorable pace and only bothering to invite you along if you’re willing to invest in what it has to offer.
Not enough good things can be said about Oldman in this movie, playing a man who has so long been a spy that he’s been honed to where he can almost do nothing but watch. It is a role defined by restraint, all too long and too sharp glances and a carefully manufactured lack of reaction to everything that crosses his path. He is the perfect protagonist for a mystery like this, giving up as little to the audience as he does those he interacts with, a man with just as many secrets as the men he is investigating. Oldman does the rare hat trick of presenting you with a man you mostly spend your time watch thinking, but not only does he make that interesting it invites you to think along and try to puzzle it out. It is easily among the best performances of his career, and worth seeking out for him alone.
The rest of the cast is no less impressive, with Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, and Benedict Cumberbatch rounding out most of the major names. All men give great performances, with special mention going to Cumberbatch, who manages to take a rather thankless role as Oldman’s assistant and turn it into a tightrope walk of a man who has potential and conviction, but is simply young enough that he looks and feels woefully inadequate next to the people he’s encountering. It’s a hard thing to pull off, and could easily have been turned bumbling, but he instead gets some of the tenses moments of the movie placed squarely on his shoulders.
As for the movie itself, for all its period trappings and seeming disinterest in inapproachability, what it has to offer is a sense of tension and paranoia that is so hard to find that whenever I do it’s like some miracle has happened. In many ways, the movie I found myself most thinking about while watching Tinker Tailor was Zodiac, a movie equally obsessed with the elusive nature of truth and the unraveling of men in pursuit of unraveling of mystery. Tinker Tailor is perhaps less idiosyncratic than Zodiac, but no less obsessive, it’s own fixations bottled up behind suits and thick glasses and men who have been obsessing for Queen and country their entire lives.
And for all its machinations, the key mystery is one treated with respect and a proper sense of genuine complexity. By the time the movie reaches its reveal of the mole, I was ready to expect almost anybody to be the culprit. To the movie’s credit, once you do know, all of the various sundry clues spread throughout the movie make utter sense and there’s a lingering sense that you (and the characters, who express similar sentiments) should have seen it before now, but it is the difference between hindsight and the present moment and the uncertainties and compulsive drive to know irrevocably drive the resolution into a thing that simply must happen to prevent everyone involved from being damned, even if the solutions bring very little peace.
I’m not sure Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is for everyone, but I think it’s the kind of movie that anyone who professes a love of movies should see. It’s rare to get a movie so interested in nuance and care, constructed for adults to see and mull over both in its run time and afterwards. And in a holiday that tried to celebrate a much dumber, brutish mystery as the ‘art’ film worth seeing, this is the welcome reminder that at the end of the day, great acting and a great story are really what make movies excel, not just in this genre but any.