Set in Cold War Britain and Europe in the early seventies, the titular characters are British intelligence agents operating in the dark world of espionage. Their spy nest is a mean place where the top men are jaded by decades together in a job that is never done, and unable to trust one another.
These civil servants (Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, Mark Strong, David Dencik) are trying to hold on to the idea that what they’re doing is useful despite evidence to the contrary.
Longtime boss Control (John Hurt) is about to take the heat for a case-related murder in Hungary a year earlier. He recalls George Smiley (Gary Oldman in fierce form) from enforced retirement to ferret out a Russian mole within the highest ranks of the organization. A rogue spy (Tom Hardy) has “treasure”, information gleaned from a female spy that could lift the lid off a major can of worms.
Subtlety is the key to le Carré and Alfredson’s approaches. Actually subtle is an understatement. The spies operate at a temperature well below room, trained never to give themselves away, and they have become what they learned. A raised eyebrow, a lingering look, taking a beat too long to walk to a car, a shadow of a muscle movement is the sum of expression.
They’re constantly under friendly and enemy surveillance and innocuous giveaways can lead to death and political devastation.
Some things aren’t so subtle, like the recurring images of chess board, intertwining stair cases that lead nowhere, and depth of field into endless empty office space represent the nature of the game. Spies can follow cases over decades and get nowhere. And there is no one to understand the information and context they carry or a way to pin down the wavering loyalties of the game.
The film represents a small miracle in storytelling. From the dense and nearly impermeable British TV series, the filmmakers have gleaned a smart 127 minutes while being faithful to story and the characters, inimitable feel and tone of original. And the neatly put together package is more accessible than the impermeable Alec Guinness outing.
The cinematography is wickedly stylish. Frame by frame there is great artistry. It opens up the claustrophobic world of the story with its buildings, shabby and well worn, grand architecture and its representation of a world that is changing and maybe not for the better.
The past its prime, room décor and the perpetual chill and rain create an authentic world of a country still reeling economically from WWII and now battling a new enemy from the east.
Tomas Alfredson directed the critically acclaimed Let the Right One In with a spare aesthetic, and he works his magic here with fearless use of silence, stunning visuals and barebones scripting.
With so much to take in, so much richness in the characters and their milieu, that the film bears repeat viewings to find added treasure. It’s an astonishing distillation of the TV series, and faithful to the unique le Carré spirit. It’s a bygone era where no technology could come to the aid of the soldiers beyond a teletype and borrowed telephone.
Oldman and Alfredson are no brainers come awards season.
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Written by John La Carré
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Opens: Dec 9
Runtime: 127 minutes
MPAA: Rated R for violence, some sexuality/nudity and language
Country: France UK Germany
Language: English / Russian / Hungarian
Want more information on the secrets of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, check out NBCUniversal's coverage of the film's red carpet premiere: