It’s surprising how this new adaptation of John Le Carre’s spy novel turns up to be so good. The book was made into a celebrated BBC TV movie with Alec Guinness playing George Smiley. It was a task to trim this sprawling saga of Cold War espionage twists and turns into a two-hour film. It was a task to fill the shoes of the inimitable Guinness. The film achieves both, and in Gary Oldman, the film finds a gravitas which keeps the momentum surging ahead, despite the fact that there’s very little action in the film, even by arthouse movie standards.
And by Hollywood spy movie standards, the film is without any substantial action, there’s no chase, no elaborate action sequences, no femme fatale in skimpy clothes, no shooting. In all, just one bullet is fired in the entire film. If you are looking for a spy like James Bond or Jason Bourne here, you are clearly in a wrong place. Here, most spies are middle-age men who are untrustworthy and weary of their existence.
In short there’s no adrenaline rush. All they do is talk, that too in a cryptic language, codes, which you’ll have to be very careful to decipher. The British secret service is called circus, the head is called Control, his Russian counterpart is called Karla. They run a secret project called Witchcraft. Even the Tinker Tailor in the title are codes. (Okay, there’s is brief love story between a foot soldier of the British agency, played by Tom Hardy and a Russian woman who has a secret to trade, but it all is played out for less than 15 minutes and she’s shot; Okay, there are several other “love stories”, between George and his wife Anne, who sleeps with one of his colleagues, played by Colin Firth, who may or may not have a relationship with another agent, Jim, played by ever wonderful Mark Strong, and there’s an one-minute scene of another agent breaking up with his boyfriend because his life may be in danger.)
On paper, the script, co-scripted by the author himself, may have look unfilmable. There is no linear structure, there’s no exposition, there’s no attempt to explain things for the audience, just one shot after another; there are some outdoor shoots, but most of it happens indoors, and moves between past and present, where the characters talk and talk some more.
Yet, what director Tomas Alfredson, who made the Norwegian vampire film ‘Let the Right One In’ (later remade in English as ‘Let Me In’), achieves in editing, and invoking a time since lost, the unpredictable political dynamics of the Cold War era (the spy, after he is exposed, says: “I had to pick a side, George. It was an aesthetic, as it was a moral choice. The West has become so ugly...”), in cold, steely photography, and in powerhouse performance from several A-list British actors, led by Gary Oldman — Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds and Benedict Cumberbatch, is nothing sort of a miracle.
The film is like a jigsaw puzzle. Alfredson scatters the pieces along the way, and when the film ends, it’s the job of the viewers to complete the puzzle. That’s another great thing about the film. Unlike a typical Hollywood film, ‘Tinker Tailor..’ does not take its audience for granted, even though Alfredson takes his job as a storyteller very seriously.
The premise is simple. There is a Russian mole at the top of the British intelligence services in the 70s. Five men are suspects, and one of them is the spy. But, which one? So, George Smiley, an agent with impeccable records, who was forced to retire from the circus not so long ago, is asked to investigate after Control (John Hurt) is dead. But, Smiley is old and weary, and he really does not care about the mole. He’s more upset about his wife Anne, who has left him for another agent.
Oldman has been nomination for an Oscar for his performance and he deserves the nod. There is scene right at the middle of the film, when Smiley narrates the story of his meeting with his Russian counterpart, Karla, in Delhi. There’s no flashback sequence. There are just dialogues, Smiley speaking, and how Oldman handles the scene is the hallmark of his performance.