Spy thrillers in Hollywood are typically something along the lines of the James Bond or Jason Bourne franchises: a seemingly super-powered protagonist must take down a force of evil after a series of gun battles and car chases through the streets of various exotic locations. Director Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John LeCarre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has none of these things, but thanks to an intricate, dense plot and a brilliant ensemble cast, he’s managed to construct one of the tightest, gripping thrillers of the year.
Set during the heart of the Cold War, the movie begins with Control (John Hurt), the leader of MI6, explaining his belief that there is a Soviet mole somewhere at the top of the organization. A year after an intelligence officer is shot in Istanbul while trying to discover the identity of the double-agent, the former deputy head, a man named George Smiley (Gary Oldman), is brought out of retirement to solve the mystery. The safety of the country in jeopardy, he slowly peels back the layers, investigates the men at the top of The Circus (Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Firth, David Dencik) and works around the system to find the mole and expose him.
Though the plot is incredibly dense and there are a great deal of characters that require the audience’s full attention, what’s stunning about Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy is that the story never becomes muddled or overly confusing. While much of the credit for this must go to writers Peter Straughan and Bridget O'Connor, Alfredson and editor Dino Jonsäter have the patience to compensate for the film's minimal dialogue and exposition. Scenes that feature two characters just sitting in a room together are flooded with suspense, as we are constantly questioning everyone’s motivation and never know which way things may go.
One of the greatest collections of acting talent around, British or otherwise, Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy succeeds in being a terrific ensemble film. Though Smiley is unquestionably the central protagonist, the audience gets to know every character as an individual. Tom Hardy brings a soulful energy to the mysterious and heartbroken Ricky Tarr, and the opportunistic Percy Alleline is brought to life by Toby Jones, who need only scowl to make us question his every move. Colin Firth and Mark Strong have a surprising bond and their emotions are palpable when tragedy strikes. Each character is vital to the story in their own way, and every actor backs them up with excellent individual performances.
At the center of it all is Gary Oldman, who has made a three-decade career of playing over-the-top characters in movies like Leon, True Romance, The Fifth Element and Sid and Nancy, but brings a phenomenal reserve to this film. Because George is such a quiet character and never has any big emotional outbursts, Oldman is required to play up the subtleties and the nuances to allow the audience into his head, and there’s never a moment where we don’t know what he’s thinking. It may not be the most “fun” turn of his career, but it’s hard to argue that it isn’t one of the strongest.
There’s no denying that Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy demands all of the audience’s attention – like its main character, the movie is methodical and patient – but it pays off with scorching performances all around, unrelenting atmosphere and a gripping mystery that will engage you to the end.