One Man and his Mole
If the natural choice of reading of James Bond would be GQ magazine (immaculate tailoring, conspicuous consumption, tasteful objectification of women), and Jason Bourne much more likely to be a Lonely Planet fan, then what would be the preferred literature of John le Carre's famous hero, George Smiley? Judging from Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I imagine it would either be The Bumper Book of Cryptic Crosswords or an office supply catalogue.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that this is not really a conventional thriller, highly accomplished though it is in every department. I did wonder whether it was a late-released summer movie or a movie angling for awards that had got itself released unusually early: the latter is definitely the case. No car chases or fisticuffs to speak of in this one, with the closest thing to an action sequence being when someone tries to pinch something from a library without being spotted (it still manages to be an incredibly tense scene).
The plot is ferociously convoluted, though not, I would say, impenetrably so. Set in the murky world of early Seventies espionage, the movie opens with a British mission to eastern Europe going bad, leading to the forced retirement of top man Control (John Hurt) and his lieutenant Smiley (Gary Oldman). But the following year, word reaches the government that Control's suspicions of a traitor working for the Russians at the highest level may in fact be true. Smiley is recalled to service to undertake a clandestine operation against his former colleagues and uncover the mole, whoever it may be.
To go any further would be slightly futile and possibly require diagrams. That said, while I had to pay attention throughout, I never felt lost within what's a fairly labyrinthine narrative. Alfredson keeps the story carefully under control and clearly signposts his flashbacks to avoid baffling the audience too much. As good as the storytelling in this film is, though, the atmosphere the director creates is equally impressive–a seedy, smoky, dingy world of musty offices and peeling wallpaper. Everything seems to be either grey or yellow-brown, including most of the main characters: an oppressive world.
Oldman's performance sets much of the tone, being ( given some of his past work ) startlingly restrained. Smiley is a passive, inscrutable figure, hugely economical in both speech and action, worlds apart from most other fictional intelligence operatives (at one point he embarks upon a crucial stealth operation and his preparations consist of taking off his shoes and sucking a breath-mint). While ruthless and implacable in pursuit of his quarry, he's also a very human and vulnerable figure, cuckolded by his wife and, it's implied, haunted by past failures.
On one level this movie is really a study in masculine frustration and despair, brought to life by a very strong cast: Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Mark Strong (the fifth film of his I've seen this year alone– does the man not sleep?), and many others. One gets the impression that all of these men have forgotten why they're playing the spy game at all: the rules of the game have become all-important, and the paranoia and distrust they generate have created a corrosive atmosphere where no-one can really be happy. They are all, to some degree, defined by their foibles: Smiley has his troubles with his wife, another is secretly and miserably gay, while another character confesses to terrible deeds carried out simply to ensure he was remembered for something, and so on.
As you'd expect, the result is a film which is low on laughs (though a welcome reappearance by Kathy Burke as a female analyst provides a couple) but still subtly gripping. There aren't really any big set pieces such as you'd find in a more conventional thriller, but there are plenty of memorable scenes (a few nasty moments, too, if you're thinking of taking an elderly relative). To be perfectly honest, given the distinction of the cast, not everyone gets quite the material you might expect, but this is just about the only criticism I can make. It's not the kind of film from which you emerge with a spring in your step and a big grin on your face, but it's still of the highest standard. Talk of how it will perform in next year's awards season is premature, but I would be very surprised if it didn't make a strong showing on shortlists all over the world, and deservedly so.