Consider me disillusioned. All these years, I’ve thought being a spy would be awesome—all globe-trotting and fancy cars and nifty gadgets. Now that I’ve seen Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, though, I can safely cross “secret agent” off of my list of prospective second careers. As it turns out, spies aren’t sexy at all. They’re sad, they cry a lot, and they mostly just slink around in poorly lit buildings and read things. It’s a lot like being a librarian, albeit with a somewhat elevated risk of being shot in the face or disemboweled in a bathtub.
None of this will come as any surprise to fans of John le Carré’s seminal 1974 espionage novel, which has been skillfully and thoughtfully adapted by Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In). Based on former intelligence officer le Carré’s own experiences with the double agent who blew his cover, Tinker is about as far as you can get from the explosive antics of the James Bond or Mission: Impossible franchises. In fact, Alfredson’s complex and sometimes glacially paced film works better as a character drama than a thriller. Tinker has no use for gunplay, gadgets, or explosive set pieces, but it’s full of a poignancy that we rarely see in a genre that has ironically come to favor action over intrigue.
It’s a bit of an understatement to say that Tinker’s hero, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), is no James Bond. As the movie begins, Smiley is coaxed out of a forced retirement to suss out the identity of a high-ranking double agent in Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. Smiley’s former boss, an old-school operative code-named Control (John Hurt), died while he was hot on the mole’s trail, leaving Smiley with a handful of suspects, including weasely Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) and dapper Bill Haydon (Colin Firth). Smiley has only two resources to speak of: ambitious young operative Peter Guillam (rising star Benedict Cumberbatch, of whom we will be seeing much in the coming months) and rogue agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy).
What follows is a cat-and-mouse game of stolen files and whispered conversations as Smiley narrows down his suspects and homes in on the traitor. Screenwriters Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor pack an impressive and sometimes overwhelming amount of story into the film’s two-hour running time, so it’s a challenge to keep up with the endless chain of double-crosses and an ever-expanding cast of shadowy characters. The story is wrapped in a complex narrative structure that constantly skips forward and backward in time, to occasionally dizzying effect. (Pay attention to Smiley’s glasses, as they’re often the only indication that we’re watching a flashback.)
Since the identity of the mole is clearly and quickly telegraphed by the film’s casting, Tinker actually gets more mileage from atmosphere than from narrative tension. Alfredson, working with Let the Right One In cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytema and veteran production designer Maria Djurkovic, delivers one of the most gorgeous—and palpably sinister—films of the year. It doesn’t often translate into suspense, but it imparts nearly every scene with a sense of vague dread and paranoia. There’s also an old-school coolness to the decidedly low-tech tools of the trade that Smiley and his colleagues use, from rotary phones to Mini Cooper-sized encryption machines.
The film’s only problem—and it will be a big one for many viewers—is that it seems to assume a previous familiarity with the story and characters. I wish I had read the book first, or watched the 1979 BBC miniseries, or at least studied the flowchart the studio sent out ahead of the film’s release. (I’m not making that up. There was really a flowchart and a glossary of code names and terms.) It’s certainly possible to untangle all the threads on your own, but having a head start certainly wouldn’t hurt. It’s sort of like showing up at a party three hours late to find that your friends are already drunk and trying to teach the cat to say “banana”—you’re perfectly willing to go along with it, but it’s hard to catch up. Unfortunately, I started to read the novel in middle school, but only made it about 50 pages or so before being distracted by a Metallica tape or Corey Haim or something. That’ll teach me.
In the end, Tinker is an extremely well-made film that will have a pretty limited appeal. If you’re looking for visceral thrills, you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re hoping for a well-acted, beautifully filmed, and cerebral espionage tale steeped in paranoia and a longing for a simpler time when the line that separated the good guys from the bad ones was more clearly defined, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better flick.