The Cold War is one of the most compelling eras in the history of this world, and a time in place which lends itself to some great storytelling. James Bond was birthed from The Cold War, and countless spy thrillers have come and gone dealing with the silent conflict. Some better than others. But I cannot imagine there is a more realistic telling of spy hunting and espionage than what is laid out in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a moody and patient story about an elaborate mole hunt within the British Intelligence Agency, the MI6, at the height of The Cold War. It is a beautiful film, shot in ashen tones and a gray palette, in back rooms and spoken in hushed tones and tense conversation. There is very little gun play, no car chases, and no exotic locations. There is only the foggy European landscape where these investigations realistically existed. While the web may reach too far at times, and the zig-zag of the time lines muddies the waters, it is important to see the forest and not focus on each and every tree.
There is a mole inside the MI6, a Soviet turncoat that is a danger to British/American operations. The head of the MI6 is Control, played by John Hurt. He is sure there is a spy within the agency, and has narrowed the field of candidates to five men, all of whom operate directly with him. The five men include Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), and, of course, George Smiley, played by Oscar nominee Gary Oldman. Despite Control's suspicions, he trusts George enough to have him lead the investigation. George comes out of retirement to seek out the mole, and his investigation leads him through a web of shady dealings and double speak.
George has an assistant, Peter (Benedict Cumberbatch) to help him in his investigation, to go where he cannot go. There is also a key character named Ricki Tarr, played by Tom Hardy. Ricki might very well be the key in uncovering the mole, and his past in Moscow lends itself to the investigation. We learn only bits an pieces about George, about all of these characters, as they are shown in flashbacks and told in cryptic conversations. Oldman is a true exercise in measured calm in a bottled-up performance that is appropriate and compelling. All of the main players are easily identified through their status as actors - Firth, Hinds, and Jones especially - or their defined appearance. But still, even the differentiation in appearance is not enough at times.
I didn't necessarily want Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to be easier to follow. I did not want a paint-by-numbers thriller dumbed down for audiences because I do enjoy a challenge sometimes. And the subject of the film is ideal for a twisting, turning narrative. But sometimes I have to admit I was confused, that is until I realized I was focused on too many plates in the air. The timeline bounces back and forth and the web of deceit is far reaching. But simplify things in your mind when you watch the film. If you do not focus on every last detail, because there are details at every turn, the generality of the plot comes into focus. There is a mole, selling secrets. This person knows something and someone tried to silence him. This other person may know something as well. Catch my drift? Follow the characters, not necessarily the words, and things may be as clear as possible. At least clear enough to enjoy the film and not grow weary.
Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In) directs the film with wonderful style and a firm grasp on the time and place. I could not imagine a better looking film for the subject. And the score itself plays like an omniscient character, spelling doom and dread and mystery as much as a simple glance or a whisper. It may not be totally accessible, but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a smart thriller with wonderful performances. Just focus on the forest, don't study each and every tree.