After months of following press coverage and whetting my appetite with trailers and snippets, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” adapted from the John LeCarre novel of the same title, has finally arrived in my local theater.
It is the early 1970S, in the midst of the Cold War, and the head of British Intelligence, “Control” (John Hurt), has stepped down after a failed operation in Budapest, Hungary. Control suspects that one of four senior British agents has been acting as a Russian agent—”The Mole”—and that the operation in Hungary was an attempt to identify him. George Smiley (Gary Oldman), who retired after Control’s resignation, is asked to investigate a claim by agent Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) that a mole does in fact exist. Smiley’s investigations—aided by the young and ambitious Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) lead him down a twisted trail of deception to Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), an agent believed to have been killed in the failed Hungary operation who is at the center of the fiasco and holds the key to the identity of the mole.
Boasting a cast including Gary Oldman and Colin Firth as well as promising, young talent like Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy, this is a film that seems at times to call more attention to showcasing the skill of its actors than on plot detail. Gary Oldman and Colin Firth are as usual on top form; Oldman in particular is the perfect fit for George Smiley. With a quiet, understated authority, he has the bearing of a man both accustom to and weary of living in a world where mistrust and suspicion are the order of the day, and betrayal often comes at the hands of those you thought you knew. Firth’s characterization of Bill Haydon yet again displays his mastery of the ability to capitalize on very little screen time to create a character who, despite flitting along the outskirts of the story, maintains a mysteriously pervasive presence. Haydon is a character whose casual machismo and wily charm readily lend themselves to the aura of intrigue that surrounds his absence from much of the film.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Peter Guillam IS especially rewarding to witness, as seemingly enamored of Oldman as Guillam is of Smiley, and yet holding his own alongside his seasoned co-stars. Given Cumberbatch’s oft-quoted claim in an interview in The Observer that the call sheet for Tinker Tailor is one he will frame and keep forever, he plays that acknowledged admiration to his advantage to cultivate the relationship between hero and hero-worshiper that exists between Smiley and Guillam. The film also boasts strong performances by Tom Hardy as Ricky Tarr, Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux, as well as Kathy Burke as Connie Sachs and Svetlana Khodchenkova as Irina.
For viewers who’ve read LeCarre’s novel, the film sustains the basics of the suspenseful plot with a few minor departures, and some of the more poignant scenes—particularly those that lingered on facial expressions and wordless but heavily coded gazes did homage to Lecarre’s fluid, descriptive writing. To those unfamiliar with the original story, the plot is summarized concisely, if confusingly at times—mostly due to the challenge of adapting such a complex story into a two-hour film—but the frequent flashbacks and oft-jarring scene shifts lend themselves well to the air of suspense. The real enjoyment, however, comes from watching a selection of talented actors conquering a cast of complex characters.