‘Tinker Tailor’: Great acting, even greater direction

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Wednesday, December 21, 2011 4:55pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

The world of author John le Carre is full of secrets and backstories and subplots. So if you’re going to make a film of the Cold War intricacies of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” you might just need a five-hour miniseries, as the 1979 British TV production demonstrated.

Or there might be another way, as a new, 127-minute version triumphantly proves. This beautifully contained film is true to le Carre’s world but spellbinding in its own stripped-down fashion.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (the pruning even takes the commas from the title) is set in 1973, as British intelligence reels from a botched operation behind the Iron Curtain. The man in charge, known as Control (John Hurt), is ousted, and he takes along his trusted lieutenant, George Smiley (Gary Oldman).

Working from this forced retirement, Smiley must determine the identity of a traitor, a “mole” inside Her Majesty’s Secret Service. This whodunit provides the movie’s forward motion, but what truly overwhelms you is the universe of Cold War spydom, a world of secrets and lies and betrayed intimacies.

Screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan are to be commended for paring down the complexities of the story into a streamlined (yet pleasingly complicated) whole. The film also boasts one of those awesome British ensembles that guarantee a tasty acting smorgasbord.

Oldman does precision work in a minimalist fashion, as befits the meticulous character. But although Smiley is the central figure, he’s merely a piece of the canvas; we follow others at times, including a heartbreaking Tom Hardy (late of “Warrior”) as a frightened agent, Benedict Cumberbatch as Smiley’s inside man, and Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds and Toby Jones as upper-level spies and suspects.

For all that, this is a director’s film, and the director is Tomas Alfredson, the Swede who turned heads with “Let the Right One In” a couple of years ago. Alfredson does not need long dialogue scenes to explain the story; he achieves volumes with his camera placement, careful lighting, and the sustained mood of sadness.

One early detail shows Alfredson’s impeccable approach: when Control leaves the spy agency, he announces that Smiley is leaving with him. And from the slight movement of the back of Smiley’s head — not his face, but the back of his head, for crying out loud — we can sense that this news is a surprise to Smiley.

These accumulated details create an entire world, one that is terribly poignant in the end: All these lives lived in shadows, the huge toll these secrets take. And yet the movie is exhilarating to watch, because it’s so well made. When the final pieces fell into place, I got the uncanny feeling I’d just watched a great movie. And “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is that.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (Four stars)

Superb adaptation of the John le Carre spy novel, in which an ousted British agent (Gary Oldman) works to uncover a traitor in the system. Great cast notwithstanding, this is director Tomas Alfredson’s film, a streamlined and beautifully detailed portrait of the terrible price paid by these Cold Warriors. With Colin Firth, Tom Hardy.

Rated: R for violence, nudity, subject matter.

Showing: Pacific Place.

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