Gary Oldman is often described as an actor’s actor...which in his case apparently means an incurable ham.
Oldman’s career is heavily weighted toward over-the-top, push-too-far performances. Sometimes this is forgivable, particularly when he’s in a bad movie and his fierce scenery gnawing is the only remotely entertaining thing in sight.
Too often over the years, though, he’s been a jarring pothole in a movie’s narrative highway.
But in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Oldman gives a marvelously restrained, subtle and carefully modulated performance. It even landed him an Oscar nomination.
He plays British spymaster George Smiley, the owlish Cold War protagonist of several John le Carré novels — a role essayed by Alec Guinness in the 1979 PBS adaptation of TTSS. And he is quietly wonderful.
The movie’s not too shabby, either.
One may question the wisdom of boiling down to two hours of screen time a book that ate up several nights as a TV miniseries. But director Tomas Alfredson (of the Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In) and screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan do a lovely job of laying out LeCarre’s densely packed, labyrinthine yarn in a comprehensible manner.
Some have complained that Tinker, Tailor... is hard to follow. Maybe. In any case, before starting this low-action brain teaser it is best to be well rested, highly caffeinated, and free of other distractions.
In the film’s opening minutes MI5 stalwart Smiley and his boss, Control (John Hurt), retire after years of service to Her Majesty, handing the keys of Britain’s intelligence apparatus to a new generation of younger spookmeisters.
For Smiley the Golden Years are anything but. This quiet, undemonstrative man rattles around his empty home — his younger, beautiful wife has abandoned him — with little direction or purpose.
Then Smiley is confronted with evidence that a KGB mole has risen to the highest levels of MI5 (or, as it is known to LeCarre afficianados, the Circus).
One of the quartet who have taken over for Control — they have code names like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and are played by Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Firth, and David Dencik — is the likely traitor.
So Smiley goes back into the spy game, albeit unofficially. He cannot let the mole know that a search is underway. Nor can Smiley be seen near the Circus. He must pull strings from well outside that hotbed of intrigue, employing those few MI5 agents whom he can trust implicitly to be his eyes and ears on the inside.
The film provides a slew of juicy roles for terrific English thesps. Tom Hardy (Inception, Warrior) is quite splendid as field agent Ricki Tarr, a sort of self-destructive black sheep whose affair with a Russian woman sets the plot in motion.
Benedict Cumberbatch (PBS’s new modern-day Sherlock Holmes) has some fine moments as Peter Guillam, who risks all (including, one suspects, his sexual secrets) to sneak sensitive documents out of the Circus and into Smiley’s hands. Love his Beatles-ish ‘do and Carnaby Row look.
Mark Strong is memorable as Jim Prideaux, whom we early on see being killed while on a mission behind the Iron Curtain ... except that he then resurfaces as a teacher at a remote English boarding school for boys.
But even more than characters and acting, Tinker Taylor... is about plot. Not your conventional spy-vs-spy action plot, but rather a cerebral chess game with real humans as the pieces.
This is a film in which important bits of information are dropped with every scene. Yawn loudly or scratch yourself at the wrong moment and you’ll miss something. And you don’t want to miss anything, because every nugget of intelligence is important. Only when put them all together will the mystery be resolved, the traitor exposed.
From this it should be clear that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not for viewers with short attention spans. The film hardly ever explains itself through exposition. Rather, like George Smiley himself, we are expected to examine the evidence and assemble the clues.
Maybe that sounds like too much work. Nah. It’s fun.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.