Everything the audience needs to know about the tone of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is established in the opening scenes. It’s 1973 and the Cold War in England is not being played out in high-tech James Bond-style labs, but in dank and dusty rooms where the head of British Intelligence is a dishevelled and elderly man known as Control (John Hurt) sending agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary on a secret mission. In Budapest, where the sounds of children playing are juxtaposed with the sight of two fighter jets tearing across the sky during a beautiful slow establishing shot camera pull, the mission goes wrong. An innocent bystander is shot dead, which is treated as an unfortunate detail in a world of international subterfuge. Thus begins this highly accomplished spy thriller/drama. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson delivers the same diffused visual style and melancholic atmosphere in this new adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 novel that he so successfully employed on Let the Right One In (2008).
Alfredson’s command of film style and his respect for the intelligence of the audience is evident during the opening title sequence, which brings the story up to speed and establishes character relationships simply through the body language and facial expressions of all the key players. The graphic matched editing and the almost noirish jazz score further enhance the sequence, which presents the professionally complex yet personally lonely world of the aging agents. Everything about this film is economical – dialogue, acting style and visual style – so that from the very opening shot the audience are themselves playing the part of spies, attempting to piece together information and looking for clues.
Throughout the film the overcast, grainy and colour-drained visuals emphasise the cold emptiness experienced by the intelligence operatives. Characters are frequently filmed boxed in by their surroundings; framed by small windows and other rigid geometric shapes. Their world is one of restrictions, deceitfulness and moral ambiguity. The cinematography is like surveillance; shots begin from a distance and then hone in on the ‘target’. There is a mist that seems to hang over the entire film, suggesting the mesh of secrets and betrayals that conceal everything seen on screen. Gone are the days of the ‘gentleman’s war’ when working for the British government or army was something to be proud of and open about. Instead there is the new world where nothing is genuine anymore and the slow-burning exhaustion and resignation to ethical compromise of working in intelligence, tears friendships and relationships apart.
As the ironically named George Smiley, Gary Oldman rivals Ryan Gosling in Drive for deadpan and minimalist acting. They both play machine-like characters who are seemingly programmed to unquestioningly perform a specific function. Throughout Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Oldman delivers a slow, still and precise performance – exemplified in one early scene when he calmly releases a bee from a moving car – to indicate Smiley’s methodical institutionalisation into the role of the spy. Like Gosling’s Driver character, things break down when Smiley breaks his programming and acts on human impulses. While this breakdown propels the main narrative in Drive, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy it is part of the back-story that happens before Smiley is ‘shelved’ and then brought back out of forcible retirement.
The significance of Smiley’s relationship with his wife comes late in the film, but midway we discover the personal attachment that he forged with a failed attempt to turn the mysterious and unseen Soviet spy Karla. In one of the most stunning shots of the film, Oldman as Smiley almost addresses the audience directly in a close-up as he tells the Karla story. It’s a rare scene of emotional exposure where the audience gets up close to this withdrawn and secretive man who betrays through expression and delivery how he got too personally invested in a situation. This is also the scene where Smiley reveals his doubts about the justness of what he does, explaining that Karla realised that neither side had much to offer, hinting that he perhaps suspects the same.
Smiley is not the only character to come undone by moments of personal attachment as other characters in the film’s multi-layered narrative are also shown to either compromise themselves professionally due to personal feelings or to have to make painful sacrifices. And this is the core of what makes Tinker Tailor Solider Spy such a compelling and remarkable film. Within its tale of double agents and international intrigue are a series of micro narratives about love lost and denied. It’s no great insight to comment that by taping photos of Smiley and his colleagues onto chess pieces, Control reduces them to players in an elaborate game where sacrificing individuals is a necessity to achieving the ultimate goal. Perhaps the deepest sense of sadness that comes from the film is that all the people involved are aware of this and yet mostly continue to play their part, regardless of consequences and uncertain as to why.