I’ve been waiting for the past several years to see how director Tomas Alfredson would follow up his phenomenal Let the Right One In, so I was ecstatic when I found out it was to be a cerebral thriller with such a strong British cast. And Gary Oldman reinterpreting a role made famous by the late Sir Alec Guinness definitely upped the fascination factor. Luckily, Tinker Tailor completely delivers on the two elements I was most interested curious about– Oldman totally makes the role, something quite different from the parts he’s had over the last decade or two, his own; and Alfredson delivers an extremely intelligent adaptation of le Carre’s novel that never dumbs itself down, but instead constantly makes the audience play catch-up with it, something all too rare in contemporary thrillers that usually pander to a perceived witless, lowest-common denominator audience.
In fact, Tinker plays its cards so close to the vest that often times we’re not sure what’s happening, from the plot to smaller details like the nature of George Smiley’s home life. But we’re given what we need when we need it, and the rest of the time we’re kept in the dark in much the way most of MI6’s agents constantly are. It’s refreshing that Alfredson would risk alienating a mainstream audience who needs all of the answers constantly spoon-fed to it the entire running time, and it’s likely the reason Tinker Tailor didn’t scare up larger box office returns. Instead, it’s the kind of film that benefits from re-watching and will likely find more and more audience favor as time goes by; and yet it still did well enough to merit production of a now-rumored sequel. With four more le Carre books starring George Smiley, and three additional novels he makes appearances in, there’s certainly room to grow Tinker Tailor into a franchise if the creative team wants to pursue it.
The plot has Oldman’s Smiley retiring from MI6, commonly referred to in-house as “the Circus.” Shortly thereafter, Control, played by John Hurt, dies of natural causes, leaving behind an investigation of what he believes to be a Soviet mole in their infrastructure. About the same time, one of their field agents, Jim Prideuax, played by Mark Strong, has a mission compromised, is possibly fatally shot, and disappears. Smiley begins to secretly take over Control’s investigation with the assistance of a younger agent, Peter Guillam, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, still on the inside of MI6. There’s a particularly intense and expertly-directed scene where Guillam has to steal some secret documents from the MI6 library and navigate a system where any baggage or briefcases must be checked and put into security. While all of this is going on, another field agent, Ricki Tarr, played by Tom Hardy, shows up at Smiley’s house after having been branded a traitor, the story of his own compromised mission linked to information that may help reveal the identity of the mole. The title of both novel and film comes from the code names Control has assigned to the four agents he believes may be the mole, agents played by Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, and David Dencik.
Of course the entire cast in fantastic, but some of the more well-known actors like Firth and Hinds don’t get a lot of screen time. For me the stand-outs were Dencik and Cumberbatch. Dencik has a great scene filmed on a landing strip with a small airplane that reveals the depths of fear and paranoia going on under the surface. And Cumberbatch’s Guillam is a nice counterpoint to Smiley while working alongside him. He’s younger, a bit more green, and more emotionally vulnerable and accessible as a character than Smiley. He helps ground the film and broaden its scope from what we get with Smiley, who plays his cards so close to his vest. It’s a shame that neither Dencik or Cumberbatch picked up Oscar nominations this past year; their work certainly deserved it, much more than some of the other nominees, for example Jonah Hill in Moneyball.
Tinker Tailor is the kind of smart, intelligent thriller rarely produced these days, and something I personally have been hungering for. Since Hollywood has dumbed-down so much of its output over the last decade, hopefully we’ll continue to see some of the excellent foreign directors with growing cache dip their toes into larger-budgeted genre films and produce movies that engage the brain along with the adrenaline glands. And not only is Tinker Tailor whip-smart, but Alfredson is a very visually gifted director, and the cinematography, framing, and editing all work together to create a sharp, gorgeous package.