‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ Provides a Master Class in Acting — as well as Spying

Which would you choose, a quiet game of chess or an action video game? Those who prefer the quiet, contemplative chess game are in for a treat with this well-made British production. Those who prefer James Bond-type spies, with plenty of explosions and chases—who, in short, like actions video games —should avoid Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Tomas Alfredson’s direction guides audiences through a multi-layered story of intrigue, betrayal, secrets, and lies. When a rumored mole and a botched recruitment assignment necessitate the removal of Control (John Hurt), the omnipotent leader of the Circus (MI6 to those on the outside), George Smiley (Oscar and BAFTA award nominee Gary Oldman) retires along with his boss. After all, Smiley is “Control’s man” who must follow his mentor into retirement and disgrace.

However, “scalphunter” Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), one of the agents who does the Circus’ dirty little jobs, soon brings news from a would-be Soviet defector (Svetlana Khodchenkova) that there is, indeed, a mole in their midst. Smiley is recalled by his government to flush out the traitor—someone from his generation of spies still working within the Circus.

The suspects include womanizer Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), dour top dog Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), mild mannered Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), and obsequious Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). The players strategically maneuver around London and throughout Europe, interweaving backstory scenes—in particular, flashbacks to a Christmas party that discloses the revelers’ secrets—with revelations in the present, all to create what becomes an elaborate, high-stakes game. Aided by the one agent he trusts, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), unassuming chess master Smiley accurately assesses each player’s motives and moves within and against the Circus, setting up a counterattack that ultimately exposes the mole.

John Le Carré’s novel has been filmed before, as a 1979 miniseries starring Alec Guinness. However, Oldman’s Smiley brings a calm center and fierce intelligence that rivals Guinness’ interpretation of the role. The brilliance of the 2011 film adaptation is Oldman’s performance, supported by a supreme cast who provide a master class in acting.

For all the excellence in filmmaking and performance, perhaps Tinker Tailor’s inexorably slow pace and lack of car chases are why American audiences did not respond as enthusiastically as their British counterparts. I watched the film in theaters in the UK and US, and the difference was remarkable. British audiences applauded the actors’ subtlety and the mounting tension of the chess game. American audiences, perhaps more accustomed to sexy spies who drive fast cars and seduce even faster women, often found the film’s pace too slow.

For those who like their tension ratcheted gradually and who enjoy watching nuanced performances, in which a nod or a smile reveal far more than an explosion or a judo kick, Tinker Tailor is a master work of psychological warfare and a likely accurate reflection of what the spy game circa early ’70s London was really like. After all, le Carré, who has a cameo in this film, was himself part of the post-World War II intelligence community. If this story is more mundane than a Bond movie, it nonetheless provides a fascinating insider’s perspective into a world of paranoia, betrayals, and secrets. As Cumberbatch says in one of the film’s special features, Smiley is a man who lets everything come to him—he determines the atmosphere in an interrogation or the direction of a conversation.

Indeed, Smiley bides his time and watches, always watches, with an eye toward what is revealed by the subtle gesture or the overly confident report. When he determines the time is right, he lures the mole to him and carefully sets the trap. As Smiley confronts his former colleague, now known to be a Comrade, he finally unleashes his anger and disappointment—a moment all the more shocking because to this point he has been a portrait of restraint. Perhaps Oldman did not receive the BAFTA or Oscar as best actor because Smiley is not as flashy a role as other nominees’; certainly Oldman, always good in a film, is at the top of his game here.

Just as the cast is superb, so too is the cinematography, including an incredibly long, sustained close-up of Oldman as Smiley describing his one-time encounter with the head of Soviet intelligence, Karla. The camera remains with Oldman throughout the soliloquy without any visual tricks or cutaway shots—the scene is powerful because of the actor’s mesmerizing storytelling. Visual effects, especially framing shots, are another highlight, whether in a storyboard series of images detailing a Soviet agent’s growing awareness of her partner’s infidelity and the violent end of their relationship or Guillam’s nerve-wracking evidence gathering from the heart of the Circus.

The haunting soundtrack takes its time developing musical themes: the patient plucking of harp strings or a haunting piano melody is later offset by driving, edgy strings. Smiley’s theme, like the character, enriches the cinematic landscape with its measured pace that builds tension and leads to a satisfying musical crescendo in the final scene.

Such a well-crafted film deserved its BAFTA as “best British film” of 2011 and its many other nominations in the UK and US.

The DVD and Blu-ray extras, which include a few deleted scenes and an audio commentary by director Alfredson and Oldman, also attest to the “master class” school of educating audiences about the nuances of acting and filmmaking. To audiences who do not want to study character development or the basics of filmmaking, the deleted scenes may seem a waste of time. However, those who analyze shots and pay attention to subtle indications of character development likely will enjoy them.

One scene simply shows Smiley cooking an egg. There’s no question why such a scene failed to make the final cut, but it nonetheless shows Oldman’s precision and control as Smiley, even doing the most boring of daily tasks. Similarly, a deleted scene of Bland and Guillam at lunch, soon after Guillam appropriates information from the Circus for Smiley, tells audiences a great deal more about both characters. Whereas old hand Bland is always in control of the conversation, relative newbie Guillam’s shaky motions betray him.

A “making of” video, also included as a DVD special feature, allows the actors to introduce their characters. This feature was shown on cable channels (e.g., I watched it on HBO last December), but it nonetheless provides an interesting overview of the film and its stars.

Unfortunately, the audio commentary, available on both Blu-ray and DVD, is less effective or intriguing. For those accustomed to humorous or even continual comments, this commentary will be a disappointment. Oldman points out the actors’ subtle moments—a nod, a tear—and praises the performers, while Alfredson injects some trivia about the way a scene was shot. However, the commentary (perhaps thankfully) includes many silences that permit audiences actually to hear the film’s dialogue. The commentary is worth playing for insights into acting and character motivations, but otherwise it has a low entertainment value.

The Blu-ray offers even more extras: interviews with Oldman, Firth, Hardy, director Alfredson and scriptwriter Peter Straughan, and a half-hour discussion with novelist le Carré. The combination DVD/Blu-ray package also supplies a code for the ultraviolet plus digital version of the film. Altogether, film analysts have a wealth of materials to watch to help them dissect this classic spy story.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s momentum and gravity are not lessened through the film’s transfer to DVD/Blu-ray or a smaller screen, but the movie should be appreciated as much for the way it is made as for its plot. Those who like to analyze films will enjoy it far more than those seeking a few hours’ escapism. Bond may be all about brawn, bombs, and babes, but Smiley shows that success in the spy game also requires strategic brilliance and brains.

RATING 8 / 10