Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Review: Cold War Paranoia Is Very Much Alive In This Smart And Slow Moving Thriller

January 11th, 2012

There is an early scene in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in which George Smiley (played by Gary Oldman) has his eyes examined and is fitted with a new pair of eyeglasses. It’s a scene that feels unremarkable for a film about Cold War paranoia and espionage. However, it later proves to be one of the most poignant after Smiley, a former MI6 agent forced into early retirement, is tasked with uncovering a Soviet mole burrowed deep inside the leadership of his former agency. Smiley’s new glasses serve as a metaphor for his need to see clearly if he is to find a traitor hiding in plain sight.

The film is based on the novel by former MI6 agent John le Carré and is directed by Tomas Alfredson, whose last film was the beautiful and dark genre bending vampire story Let The Right One In. With Tinker, Alfredson takes his time unraveling the dense plot, which for some might feel like an overly slow journey. This spy film does not move at a sprinters pace like the Jason Bourne and Mission Impossible franchises. Instead, Alfredson is more concerned with thoroughly vetting every detail of a scene than with having his characters charge through elaborate action sequences. But for those willing to indulge his slow pacing, you’ll be rewarded with an intelligent and satisfying spy film.

Gary Oldman’s performance as George Smiley is a definite highlight of this film. Oldman has always had the ability to shift seamlessly between playing the hero or the villain, but he is especially strong in this performance as a character existing somewhere in the middle. He is a man whose business is to keep secrets, and Oldman will unnerve you at times with his restrained and expressionless poker face. It’s a performance built largely on the power of suggestion and is impressive to watch.

Other familiar faces you’ll recognize in this mostly British ensemble are Colin Firth, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Ciaran Hinds and Toby Jones. Their performances exist mostly in the periphery of the story. We slowly learn about each character during Smiley’s investigation, but never enough to really know which one is the mole. I credit Alfredson’s tight handling of the script and his attention to detail, both of which will have you guessing who the mole is right until the final reveal.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a film about clearly seeing the truths hidden in plain sight. It is a well-crafted and intricate film for those looking for a more cerebral outing at the movies. And while the action in Tinker may not keep up with the high-octane speed of other contemporary spy thrillers, it will certainly accomplish something they rarely do: make you think.

—Stephen Bailey. Stephen is a freelance writer based in New York City. He covers film, culture and anything that engages his curiosity. When he isn’t writing, you’ll find him exploring Manhattan in search of the city’s best cup of coffee.  

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