The most compelling aspect of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy comes from its atmosphere. It’s something that was remarkably effective in Tomas Alfredson’s previous film, Let the Right One In, and proves to be an even more vital aspect in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Alfredson’s sense of visual space, where ceilings are low and colors are shades of brown, blends well with the film’s murmuring conversations and methodical pacing. Adapted from John le Carré’s novel and adapted by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy takes the concept of the procedural to a new extreme, wherein the investigative process is a slow and complicated one.
I’ll freely admit that there’s a good portion to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that I simply did not grasp upon my viewing. It’s a labyrinth of a film, where much of its detective work leads to dead ends or empty strands of detail. The dense quality of its narrative is enhanced by the film’s rather arbitrary cuts from present to past, wherein we see the film’s lead investigator, George Smiley (Gary Oldman) reflect on a pivotal Christmas office party while contending with the minimal details of finding a mole. And while the screenwriters wrap things up rather conveniently by the film’s conclusion, I was never able to complete embrace their attempt to keep the audience in the dark for such a long period of time.
The biggest problem I had with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy stems from an incident that ends up being the causal element behind the film’s investigative narrative. Alfredson does something interesting in allowing the audience to believe that a character had died, only to reintroduce him later. It’s problematic because O’Connor and Straughan aren’t bridging the narrative in a concise way – there’s something disappointingly arbitrary and manufactured about the maze that we’re in. Alfredson wisely takes visual cues to establish setting and the leaps back and forth in time, but the lacking screenplay handicaps the clarity of the whole picture.
Beyond Alfredson’s sharp directorial instincts and Maria Djurkovic’s impressive set design, the film’s cast is of a master class of understated acting. Stand-outs include Benedict Cumberbatch as a nervous rookie agent who is enlisted on Smiley’s task force and Tom Hardy as a reckless agent whose reputation has been tarnished as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. What both actors, along with Gary Oldman, benefit from is a rich sense of character development. All three characters manage to come out of the impenetrable atmosphere as three dimensional characters. That’s not the case for the remaining cast, including Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, and John Hurt, who unfortunately fade into the London fog faster than Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy fades in my memory.