An adaptation of a John Le Carre spy novel might sound like an unusual follow-up for the director of the Swedish vampire sensation Let the Right One In, but that’s only until you see the dimension of dread that Tomas Alfredson brings to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This is espionage drama as existential horror flick.
Le Carre is a grimly realistic spy novelist, concerned with the practical details and ugly morality of intelligence work rather than the sensationalistic fantasies that popular culture usually delights in. On screen, that’s been clear since the 1965 version of Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, a stark, almost documentary-like tale of weary dissolution. Yet Tinker Tailor goes way beyond the anti-Bondness of that film straight into terror territory. These aren’t spies; they’re serial killers.
Narratively, Tinker Tailor remains a spy flick. In the midst of the Cold War, suspicion arises that the British intelligence service – referred to as the Circus – may have a mole among its top ranks. To ferret him or her out, the country’s secretary for defense calls on George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a retired Circus deputy who’s been shuffling his way through a faltering marriage and an aimless retirement.
Oldman offers a morose performance that’s mesmerizing in its stillness (and crucial, too, given the way identities and strategies are constantly in shift around him). As buttoned-up as his stiff wardrobe – with a dress shirt covered by a vest covered by a jacket covered by an overcoat – Smiley only moves when he absolutely needs to. He’s like a marionette performer who must manipulate his puppets without them noticing he’s pulled a single string.
This is especially difficult given the intelligence and duplicity of the men Smiley is investigating. To play these slippery suspects, Alfredson has gathered a gentlemanly rogue’s gallery of actors. At one point, the following faces are dourly gathered around a conference table: John Hurt, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones. It’s safe to say the movie’s dialogue is in good hands.
It’s Alfredson’s hands, however, that give the film its distinction (at least in comparison to other spy movies; I haven’t seen the acclaimed miniseries version of “Tinker Tailor”). As in Let the Right One In, Alfredson favors dark hallways and gloomy tunnels. Figures are often in shadow, to the point that even crucial characters – such as Smiley’s unfaithful wife – are never fully seen.
Juxtaposed with these elements of unseen menace are shocking images of gruesome violence: a woman shot while nursing her baby during a stakeout gone wrong; the grisly corpse of an agent whose throat has been slit and whose eye has been gouged. On a handful of occasions, Alfredson jostles us out of the film’s dense narrative fog to remind us that lives are at stake here and pain is being endured. Le Carre has always countered the Bond myth with the reality that spy craft is dirty, dispiriting work. Alfredson has added the notion that it’s also horrifying.