Dear Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,
(Read a post-screening interview with star Gary Oldman and director Tomas Alfredson here)
The spy thriller has become a big, loud, frenetic genre as of late. Films like those of the Bourne Trilogy or Bond series have allowed fantasy and technology to take the place of what might pass for actual spy work. And while these films are perfectly serviceable in their own right as an escapist distraction – a fantastical trip into a world as much science fiction as spy thriller – they do often make one yearn for a film where actual character, intelligence, duplicity, and slyness are exhibited and rewarded.
A film such as yourself is a breath of fresh air in that respect. You’re a quiet, measured, patient film that tells an engaging, human story. On the surface that story is a simple one – Control (John Hurt), the head of the SIS, the British intelligence service also know as ‘The Circus,’ believes that there is a Russian mole highly placed in the organization. He asks a trusted agent to meet an informant for him as a means of learning the identity of the mole. When the operation doesn’t go as expected, Control and his right-hand man George Smiley are forced into retirement. Soon, however, Smiley is called out of retirement to take up the search once more.
The narrative is the highlight here, spanning a year, a number of different stories and missions, and a myriad of characters brought to vivid life by a parade of some of the best British actors working. There are twists and turns that discussion would threaten to undermine, but, luckily, the labyrinthine nature of your narrative makes it hard to spoil in its entirety. Even if one were to know the identity of the traitor, the journey and the twists and artistry it employs are worth coming back for. The audience begins the film in much the same way as George Smiley – drifting, confused, and with too many lies, stories, and characters to keep straight. Miraculously, from this tangled, seemingly-insurmountable raw material your director Tomas Alfredson and writers Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan create a complex, riveting, and surprisingly moving film. You begin with a ball of varied, tangled threads, and slowly tease each one out, laying it clearly before the audience before beginning to knit them into a thick, dark cloak. Yet the question remains; who has the dagger?
Still, your story is based very much in the motivations and relationships of the characters, and everyone involved brings their A-game to the proceedings. The best among your characters is the centerpiece role of retired intelligence officer George Smiley. As played by Gary Oldman, Smiley is a quiet, thoughtful, deeply intense man for whom work is more than a matter of paycheck. For Smiley, his job in the Circus is about keeping his homeland, his way of life, his country, safe from outside threats that would seek to destroy it. The idea of a mole working against him and his country, while also being a member of that country, is personally offensive – even more so than the fact that his wife has just left him for what is heavily inferred to be at least the second time. Smiley has a stolidness, an economy of motion and speech that starts off as inscrutability before morphing into a kind of serpentine menace.
Oldman plays Smiley close to the vest in this way, beginning in the position of a loyal, obedient servant to Control and a quiet retiree before slowly building a keen momentum toward the truth, which will drag him back into the organization from which he thought himself long retired. One gets the feeling that Smiley knows everything at the outset of the story, and only needs the proof before making his long-determined move. His power and intelligence are his weapons, and he keeps them concealed as a means of gaining a measure of leverage over those he works against, as well as those he works with. In the intelligence community mystery is an asset, and Smiley knows this better than anyone else.
Every supporting character is equal to the task of meeting Oldman’s work, but there are a few who stick out as particularly effective. Tom Hardy imbues the young, possibly traitorous Ricki Tarr with the naivety and humanity long since beaten out of his more seasoned compatriots. Benedict Cumberbatch, though, creates the character closest to Oldman’s performance with his portrayal of Peter Guillam, a young, rising-star officer who acts as Smiley’s inside man. The layers and affectations that Cumberbatch creates with this character are the work of someone worth keeping an eye on. He is the other side of the coin explored by Hardy’s character, and his path is equally engrossing and fraught with dire inevitability.
Most surprising about these characters is the way in which we grow from seeing them only as cyphers at the center of an interesting story to fully fledged people. Slowly, as they reveal in fits and starts their well-conceal humanity, we begin to get a feeling for the toll each of these man has agreed to pay in the name of service to their country. At one point, someone mentions that everyone in the intelligence community is just trying to find the weakness in their adversaries. As time goes on, we come to understand that any value or care outside of their job is a weakness. It is a very basic idea, and one visited in spy films often, yet you manage it with such deftness and talent that it feels new and important.
All of this attention paid to story and character is not meant to detract from your director’s efforts. Alfredson brings a firm stylistic sense to the tale. Whereas many films of the spy variety nowadays use shaky cam tactics and frantic staging to build intensity, Alfredson uses static shots and deftly staged tableau to build a sense of calm professionalism and smoldering tension. There is a naturalistic flow to the movements and actions on display, and yet within that flow Alfredson finds the perfect way to frame and stage each moment. It is a courageous stylistic choice given that it places the entire burden of the visual storytelling firmly on the shoulders of Alfredson and his cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, rather than chance and happenstance. Luckily, they pull it all off with aplomb.
Between this directorial discipline, your story, the acting, and the sound editing – silences amplify the subtle, everyday noises that collect like menacing specters in the wings of your tale – your place among my top films of the year is assured. Oldman and the crew create subtle, vital characters that fill a tense, vibrant tale of espionage, loyalty, and the human cost of nationalized paranoia and suspicion. You are not a movie to be missed.
With unrestrained enthusiasm,
Brian J. Roan