Tomas Alfredson, who directed the wonderful Swedish vampire film LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, adapts John le Carre's classic spy novel into a slow burn thriller. His film is as laconic as his central character, played with great reserve by Gary Oldman. From its Cold War setting to its visual style, the film at times conjures up memories of Hitchcock's latter day thrillers.
George Smiley (Oldman, LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL) was a top spy for MI6 before being forced into retirement after a botched mission left fellow agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong, STARDUST) shot in the street. The incident also took down his boss Control (John Hurt, THE ELEPHANT MAN), who has long believed that there is a Russian mole in the highest ranks of the "Circus." When top official Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney, THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND) gets a tip about the mole, he calls in Smiley to work outside the agency in order to root out the double agent.
Based on the children's rhyme Control had code named the men he suspected. "Tinker" is Percy Alleline (Toby Jones, THE PAINTED VEIL), a man so determined in bringing in the big defector that he goes above his superiors' heads in order to get funds for his own secret division. "Tailor" is Bill Haydon (Colin Firth, A SINGLE MAN), a respected agent who is known around the office as a ladies man. "Soldier" is Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds, MUNICH), a veteran agent who sees spy work as the front lines of a new war. "Poorman" is Toby Esterhase (David Dencik, a bureaucratic kiss-ass who was rescued from a Soviet block country by Control. "Beggarman" is Smiley.
Smiley requests a small team to help. Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch, WAR HORSE) is his man on the inside of the Circus who can secure him files. He's young and called upon to do the most risky jobs. But he has his secrets too. Mendel (Roger Lloyd-Pack, HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE) is now retired, raising bees, when he called back into duty to do the clean-up work. Later Smiley will receive key information from Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy, INCEPTION), a young agent who is believed to be a defector.
What Smiley uncovers is more about mind games than politics. Karla is the top Russian agent who Smiley met once. They've been twisting the insides of each other's minds ever since. Alliances and friendships inside MI6 will be tested. Even Smiley isn't above manipulating a fellow agent to get what he needs. It's less about getting government secrets, but one upping your opponent. The only problem is we don't quite know who is playing for whose team.
Alfredson is very patient in letting the details play out. There are no action-packed moments like a Bourne film. This is the kind of spy story where it works on the mind and rewards those that pay attention. Watch for a wonderful ode to REAR WINDOW in the scene where Ricky Tarr is staking out a Russian agent. The ingenious layering of the sequence where Peter has to sneak a log book out of the Circus is filled with tension because of the methodical pacing.
It is so hard to believe that Oldman has never been nominated for an Academy Award. His performance here is subtle and powerful. Watch his reaction when he learns that Control suspected him as a double agent. The look of sadness and disappointment speaks pages of dialogue in a mere look. Oldman gives Smiley the classic stiff British upper lip quality, but his joy at showing up those that kicked him out creeps through. He makes Smiley the consummate professional who has been worn down by a very demanding job.
The pacing might be an issue for some, but the story rewards those that stick with it. I found myself getting wrapped up in the way the agents on all sides used what they knew about each other to wage psychological warfare. It reminds us that national secrets are in the hands of mere men.