John Le Carre's books have been made into some great movies. They include Martin Ritt's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John Boorman's The Tailor of Panama, and Fernando Meirelles' The Constant Gardener. Le Carre's most beloved and ambitious of novels, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" had been made into a BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness in the role of George Smiley, a character that appeared in many of Le Carre's books, almost like the Jack Ryan character in Tom Clancy's espionage universe. I've yet to see that version, but director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) and husband-and-wife screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan have created a film that is as captivating as it is thrilling as it is puzzling and as it is clever (O'Connor passed away last year from cancer and the film is dedicated to her).
In 1973, when a mission in Hungary goes awry, British Intelligence ousts several of its members from their positions to save face, including agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman). Years later, when an MI6 agent (Tom Hardy) surfaces with information that a KGB mole has infiltrated the organization, Smiley is called out of retirement. His mission is to take over the case of figuring out who the traitor is, a case that his former boss (John Hurt) believed was connected to the incident in Hungary.
What is so fascinating about this plot is that although Smiley's quest proceeds in a linear manner, whenever he interviews someone or remembers something himself, the narrative suddenly loses any chronology. The first person Smiley interviews might relay a story that took place before the one that the second person tells, but the third person will tell one that takes place between the two... and so on and so forth. That is perhaps the great ingenuity of this screenplay (and Le Carre's story), the use of flashbacks to continuously give us a different perspective on a great number of events. As a viewer, I'm constantly trying to keep up so I can comprehend what I've seen and yet I'm still not sure what could happen next.
The tone of this suspense is only increased by the constant use of coded language in the dialogue (i.e. the "Circus" refers to MI6) and just in general how the film treats the time period. This isn't exactly a new interpretation of the Cold War, but for a time that where battles were fought behind-the-scenes, Alfredson gives everything a sort of weary feeling as if he has removed any exoticism and instead replaced it with the same attention to detail that he displayed in Let the Right One In alongside some brilliant camerawork and pacing.
What helps to sell this film (as if it needs anything else at this point) is the pitch-perfect performances. The stacked cast also includes Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Dencik, Stephen Graham, Simon McBurney, Toby Jones, Kathy Burke, and Christian McKay. Everyone really feels like an important piece to the story no matter how limited their screentime might be. Oldman in particular is perhaps the most enjoyable to watch in the lead role. His speech and deadpan style lends itself to a man who is questioning if what he has done and is going to do will ever really matter.
In fact, that is perhaps the great irony of this film. As the story enters its final masterful montage set to a French version of Beyond the Sea, we start to realize that for all of the manipulation and loyalty that these men and women have brought upon each other, what does it ammount to? I think the final moments of the film answers that pretty well by leaving it up to the viewer to decide. This movie could only be described as immersive. You begin to feel like you are a part of this warped world where no one, not even yourself, can be trusted to do what is right.