There is certain information that the new film version of John le Carré's "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" expects its viewers to already know. For instance, that the film takes place during the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, when the British and Soviet intelligence agencies were pitted against each other in deadly games of cat-and-mouse. It also expects a basic understanding of agents and counter-agents, intelligence operations, and the uneasy political climate of the day. Oh, and it helps to know the British counting rhyme that the title refers to, that goes, "Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief."
But even beyond that, "Tinker, Tailor," requires the viewer to really think and pay attention in order to piece together what is going on. For a film with so many twists and feints and red herrings, there isn't much exposition. Sometimes the plot hinges on small details, like being able to recognize a woman whose face is never shown onscreen, or to work out how the protagonist, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), comes to certain conclusions. There are multiple flashbacks, some that may be confused for the present day. Most of the characters also use a shorthand slang, known as Tradecraft, that takes a while to pick up on – for instance, MI6 is The Circus, and the Soviet Spymaster is nicknamed Karla. And this is not the kind of movie that stops to explain every unfamiliar term and concept.
Yet while the particulars of the plot are convoluted, the premise is not. A British agent named Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), is sent to Hungary by Control (John Hurt), head of the Circus, to find information about a mole he suspects the KGB has planted in the upper echelons of British intelligence. Prideux is shot and the resulting scandal forces the resignations of Control and his right-hand man, George Smiley. However, a subsequent allegation by a possible rogue agent, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), brings Smiley out of retirement to secretly investigate the mole. His suspects are four: Percy Alleline, (Toby Jones) the new Chief of the Circus, and his inner circle, comprised of Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik).
The film is deliberately a little smarter than the audience, helping it to seem that George Smiley is always several steps ahead of everyone else. However, all the complexities of who knows what, and who may be untrustworthy can easily be worked out with a few rewatches and Googling the details. Focusing too closely on the minutia may cause viewers to miss that the film is primarily concerned with examining the character of Smiley, and through him the cold, amoral, labyrinthine world he must navigate. The search for the mole encompasses the stories of several agents who have to make hard sacrifices for the sake of their work. There's the sad love affair between Ricki Tarr and a Soviet woman he tries to turn (Svetlana Khodchenkova), the conflicted maneuverings of Smiley's chief ally Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), the awful fate of Jim Prideaux, and finally the troubled personal life of Smiley himself.
Swedish director Tomas Alfredson has gone from helming a small horror tale, "Let the Right One In" to a massively more complicated espionage thriller with a star-studded British cast in "Tinker, Tailor," but it's clear immediately that he's the right man for the job. He summons up a wonderful atmosphere of isolation and loneliness, placing his characters in stark, almost monochrome environments. You can practically feel the perpetual chill through the screen. And he is exceptionally good at suggesting the psychological states of various characters with hardly a word of dialogue. It may be difficult to follow the specific logic of the spy games, but it's always clear what every character is going through emotionally, in the moment, and it's riveting to watch.
The cast is excellent, with Gary Oldman at the top of the list. His Smiley is minimalist, cerebral, and immaculate - cultivating a perfect dead-eye stare behind thick vintage glasses. He is the most closely examined character, and the most impenetrable. We see other characters let down their guard in private moments, but Smiley never slips - he's the perfect Cold Warrior. Among the supporting cast, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, and Tom Hardy get a lot of emotional fireworks to play with, and John Hurt is as invaluable as ever.
"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," is a spy film after my own heart, made in the grand tradition of the 1970s conspiracy thrillers. Yet it's the more personal stories at its core, the examinations of the terrible human cost of the game, that make it distinctive. If you want to see a typical Hollywood spy film, full of action and mayhem, I hear the new "Mission: Impossible" is quite good. But if you want to delve deeper into the murk of real-world espionage, and have the patience for it, "Tinker, Tailor," is a very satisfying experience.