With the Cold War an increasingly distant memory, the espionage fiction that was one of its only redeeming aspects reads more like alternate history SF than it does illustrating how uncomfortably close we were to nuclear obliteration for five decades. Rather than—as many of the leading authors of espionage fiction feared—rendering the genre obsolete, if anything, it’s all a lot more fun now. Thus, the work of John le Carré can be properly appreciated for how gorgeously written and intelligently conceived it is, without the terror of the actual Cold War hanging over the reader. Many fans champion Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as his apex. The new movie adaptation of that book, opening December 9th in New York and Los Angeles and throughout the United States in early January, may not have any bearing on the novel’s supremacy among the le Carré canon, but one thing is certain: it’s a really good movie.
Set in a fully-enough realized 1973-4 that it almost looks like it was shot on location with the aid of a time machine, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy also feels like the movies of that era. It proceeds at the pace it damn well feels like, is as complex as it feels like being, and while it doesn’t make the story impossible to figure out, it doesn’t pander to its audience or do any expository hand-holding. That story, difficult to delve into in any detail without spoilers, revolves around British Intelligence discovering the existence of a Russian mole, and doing everything they can to unearth that mole’s identity. It’s quite complex and requires a good deal of focus from its audience, but make no mistake; this is a good thing. Director Tomas Alfredson, whose most recent feature of note was the near-classic vampire picture Let The Right One In, hits and sustains just the right tone throughout, aided by one absolute hell of a cast.
First, as protagonist George Smiley, Gary Oldman gives one of the best performances of a career with many good ones to choose from. The rest of the cast is like an all-star English acting team: Colin Firth is great, Tom Hardy turns in another solid chapter in all the biographies thirty years from now after he becomes the 21st century Brando (an exaggeration, sure, but not impossible), John Hurt’s terrific, Mark Strong is greatly affecting (with arguably the meatiest character), and Benedict Cumberbatch is good enough that we all need to learn how to spell and pronounce his name. There is not a single person, down to extras and non-speaking roles, who isn’t excellent.
The world they inhabit, as alluded to above, is an entirely natural one, too. In not trying for obvious visual cues to evoke the period, Alfredson and his designers and crew end up doing so far more effectively than they would have otherwise. This ties into one of the key elements in Alfredson’s being hired to direct the movie in the first place: telling producer Tim Bevan, “Well, I think that all of the musclebound guys, they go and join the army. And the nerds, they are the spies.” And these people are nerds. Even the cool guy (Colin Firth or Tom Hardy, depending on your perspective) is a little awkward. And (not a spoiler) there’s a party scene where everyone at the Circus (their wonderfully multiple entendre name for British Intelligence) gets drunk and sings the Soviet National Anthem as an almost affectionate joke, the kind of thing—that would take hours to explain to an outsider—that nerds get up to when they get a couple drinks in them. (With “them,” of course, meaning “us.”)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is likely to appeal most to le Carré fans, who should enjoy how perfectly the movie replicates the feel and tone of his novels, though anyone who likes an intelligently executed, lived-in period piece should enjoy themselves greatly. It takes its time, but, with the help of a breathtaking final sequence, arrives at an immensely satisfying place. As the Oscars could very well be this year for Gary Oldman fans: the man is spectacular in this.
Danny Bowes is a filmmaker and writer, whose work has appeared on nytheatre.com and premiere.com. He writes a weekly column each Wednesday at Hudak on Hollywood and reviews Asian cinema for Next Projection.