The year is 1973, the milieu British secret service. Someone, we’re told, is a mole, a rotten apple—a red one. Retired master spook George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is charged with smoking him out. But how? Everyone has secrets. Everyone is compromised. Everyone looks a little shifty. The world, in fact, looks shifty. If you were to layer every frame of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy atop one another and shine a light through you’d get a palimpsest of grimy wallpaper, gloomy skies, nervous sweat, hairpieces and funeral parlour suits. Smiley’s bifocals rhyme with all those dirty windows, desk lamps and dull reflective surfaces of creaky old lifts with steel walls. You’d get a blur of European cities in multiple shades of shabby. This War isn’t just Cold; it’s also crepuscular, analogue and ramshackle.
Directed with a born voyeur’s gaze by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) from a ruthlessly taut script by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor, Tinker Tailor thrives on atmosphere. It needs to. Because of you haven’t read John Le Carré’s source novel or seen the original 1979 UK miniseries—shit, maybe even if you have—following the tangled threads of this adaptation, which clocks in at just over two hours but could easily have been six, can be a challenge. Smiley’s no great help here as he tends to say little. One of the things necessarily lost in this truncated narrative is a fuller sense of Smiley’s own psychic wounds. But there’s something to be said for this kind of bracing, at times baffling, concision. The film is claustrophobic and never less than intriguing. And the new emphasis on the characters’ sexual proclivities is quite welcome, and beautifully handled by the stellar cast, Colin Firth especially.
Which isn’t to say that we don’t get a few clichés thrown in. “Trust no one,” “Things aren’t always what they seem”: people actually say this stuff in Tinker Tailor. But the unsaid is often what’s most compelling in this morally murky, mystery-saturated thriller. Besides Oldman and Firth, the others actors who work wonders with misdirection and withholding include Toby Jones, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Ciarán Hinds and an especially pretty Tom Hardy—probably the year’s best gallery of guilt-ridden faces.