"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."
- John Lennon
Things aren't always what they seem in the brown and grey of early 1970's London. In a society on edge from the possibility of nuclear catastrophe, the function of the spy is a crucial one in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Based on John le Carre's best-selling novel, this intricate espionage thriller is set in the hierarchy of the British Secret Intelligence Service, or "The Circus". Veteran Agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) has been forced into retirement but is quickly brought back in when it becomes apparent that one of five men (Smiley being one of them) is believed to be a double-agent working with the Soviets.
Enlisting the help of the young and eager agent Peter (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley intends to delve into tampered records and conduct hard interrogations in order to weed out the so-called 'mole'. Going by the following codenames - 'Tinker' (Toby Jones), 'Tailor' (Colin Firth), 'Soldier' (Ciaran Hinds) and 'Poor Man' (David Dencik) – Smiley becomes entrenched in a dark and sinister underworld of secrecy, deception and vicious murder.
Told through flashbacks (in a bid to remain faithful with the novel's narrative format) it's very much like piecing together a puzzle. Names and places are mentioned, but may not necessarily come back until later on when Smiley pieces it together, making it difficult for the viewer to follow at times. However, it does resolve and all leads are followed up creating a nice and neat package of a story.
Directed by the Swedish Tomas Alfredson, the film is distinctly British in its mannerisms, dark sense of humour and elegance due the outsider's point-of-view on British society. The slow and steady pace perfectly complements the very involved nature of the story, but lacks in a certain level of excitement that some audiences will expect.
The film's greatest quality is the cast and all the performances. Oldman is a revelation as Smiley, giving the character a sinister and conniving edge that is different from Sir Alec Guiness' portrayal of the character 32 years earlier, and he is supported by a powerhouse of British acting talent. The cinematography is so stunningly beautiful in its presentation of a dark and gritty 70s London, with a technique that is distinctly old-fashioned (e.g. zooms, pro-longed dolly tracking shots) but suits the film.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not a film for younger audiences who will be expecting a gunfighting, over-the-top violent and torturous spy thriller. On the contrary, it is a quiet, intelligent and brooding piece of voyeurism that both values and destroys trust and loyalty. With its many characters and subplots, it becomes a little convoluted and as a result may require a second viewing but overall it is beautifully done and should win an Academy Award for Casting if such a category existed.