Tomas Alfredson hasn’t made your typical spy thriller. Not only is that due to the lack of explosions, a fast pace, shootouts, or any other convention the genre tends to call for, but because Alfredson hasn’t really made a “thriller.” Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, in actuality, is a dark ensemble love story about lonely spies. The best character who represents everything the film says is Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong). At first, Jim, a towering field operative, is played with a quiet intensity. He’s calculating and observant like the rest of his spy brethren, but once stripped down of his serious spy mode and once revealed at his most vulnerable, Jim’s an emotionally and psychologically tortured guy.
The world of espionage is a vicious place, so says the film. At one point, for great reasons I won’t spoil, Jim ends up going from pivotal spy missions to teaching school children in an instant. For one, how emasculating and damaging that must be. The character goes from a life of importance and violence, and then goes off to teach children. The system chewed him up and spat him out like he was nothing.
All these brief glimpses of the ensemble’s vulnerability come fast and, if one doesn’t give them much thought, they’ll think these characters have no personality or defining traits. What they’re feeling and thinking is put out there for the audience, but not in a hand-holding fashion. Alfredson has the film say a lot without actually saying much. The director allows for these characters to be read in profound ways, but never allows for blatant and pandering exposition about what they are all feeling, thinking, or their past. If a character broke down emotionally or started to pour their heart out, it would be false.
A great example of character building that comes to mind – and a piece of fantastic foreshadowing – is seeing the contrast of Jim Prideaux and George Smiley (Gary Oldman) both go about handling a caged creature. Jim brutally kills an owl which enters his classroom, both showing he’s still got violence in him and how he would deal with a caged and frightened animal. Smiley, instead, slowly studies and acts patiently towards a trapped fly, and when the right moment strikes, he kindly releases it. The way they deal with their trapped creatures is telling about their personalities, but also how they would go about dealing with the mole.
Showing and not telling exposition, such as that contrast between Jim and George, is the only suitable way of communicating what type of people these characters are. They’re repressed individuals. They’re spies, trained to trust no one. Why would one of them stop all the sudden and lay out their problems showing their weaknesses, both to another character and the audience? They keep everything to themselves, which is a part of what’s eating away at all of them. The main conflict isn’t “Who’s the mole?” it’s the state these characters are in and will continue to live in.
The quiet transformation George Smiley, the lead of the film, goes through is a powerful one. When first introduced to Smiley, he’s being forced to retire, his wife has left him, and he’s reduced to sitting at home watching television every day or swimming in a pond like every other old man in London. He’s an unsuspecting and frail-looking ghost, but Gary Oldman always provides a sense of skillful and tactful power. He’s constantly building information. Smiley is not only looking to catch the mole and to protect his country, but also to prove something to himself.
I haven’t seen the miniseries from 1979 or read the classic novel, but it’s obvious much was condensed to fit the two running time Alfredson wound up with – apparently a lot was cut out. Even with the condensing, the structure and pace is near-perfect. The film is a slow-burner, but every scene is building up who these characters are and, yes, who the mole is. Little hints are scattered throughout, some of which take a few viewings to find, and it makes the film all the more satisfying.
The Upside: Thematically and structurally rich; tight and precise storytelling; Alfredson creates a dark and isolating atmosphere; doesn’t spoon-feed you information like you’re a moron; Gary Oldman gives one of his best performances to date, which says a lot; the ensemble, like Oldman, says everything they need to say with their eyes and glances.
The Downside: If you love this film, prepare to spend hours trying to explain what happens in the film to others.
On The Side: Saying “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” slowly and with an important sounding British accent is a lot of fun.