Retired agent George Smiley is charged with discovering the identity of a Soviet mole within British intelligence.
There’s an odd nostalgic irony at work in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Not only is it set in the 1970s but it is also competing against a highly regarded TV adaptation. That it completely convinces in its depiction of the former while both honouring and bypassing the latter is down to brilliant writing and direction.
The film is an old-fashioned spy tale that focuses more on intelligence than quick editing or action. It’s all about lingering camera shots and emotions animated by slight facial tics. It doesn’t grab you—it slowly envelops you until you are completely absorbed within its world.
In many ways, Gary Oldman’s George Smiley is an anti-hero. He’s late middle-aged, hardly says a word and wears thick glasses that make him appear vulnerable. And yet Oldman’s performance is electric. One is never in doubt about what he is thinking, and though there are many scenes where he stands in the background and says nothing, he is almost always in control and is usually the main focal point of interest.
In many ways, the hunt for the mole is secondary. The great appeal to the film is in its terrific performances. Everyone, from the leads down to characters onscreen for only five minutes, is compelling to watch. In many ways, it’s kind of a shame that this ensemble weren’t given the opportunity to do a long TV adaptation, because every performance is worth far more time.
Is it a perfect film? No. It does feel like a few crucial points are skipped over, and while the decree of ‘less is more’ is almost always true, some characters are certainly robbed of screen time. There is also one flaw that deals with the mole, but to even hint at it would reveal too much. Still, it is difficult envisioning a better cinematic adaptation of John le Carre’s book than this, so all of these points are easily forgiven.
Go in looking for excitement and explosions and you’re likely to fall asleep. But if you’re willing to do the work, following scene after scene and putting the pieces together with Smiley and his team, you will be richly rewarded.
A great ensemble piece. A great social drama. A great film. Do not miss it.
Not just one of the year’s best, but perhaps one of the greatest espionage films of all time.