Evoking the murky grit, shadow skulking, and moral vagueries of classic espionage films like Coppola's "The Conversation" and De Palma's "Blow-Out," Tomas Alfredson's take on John le Carre's "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is a stately and entrancing mindfuck, capable of both brutal violence and an aching yearning. While the narrative approaches near alienating levels of complexity (and how could it not, dealing with spy/counterspy operations at such high levels of national government?) the measured, impeccable performances and Alfredson's gorgeous, haunting mise-en-scene coupled with Alberto Iglesias's Lynchian netherworld jazz score create an aura of suffocating claustrophobia and crumbling allegiances. Depicting the Cold War as seen through a fog of tangled emotions and sickening near hallucinatory setpieces, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is a symphony of noir-tinged elegance and aristocratic pomp, with each character struggling to reduce the influence of their own humanity to a narrow point capable of allowing the necessary distance demanded by total national security. Nothing here is sacred, be it egoism or romance, and all are prone to shatter at the hands of adversaries. The corruption runs deep, scarring all involved. The psychological constructs that are erected throughout the film become glass houses and by the end of it all, few escape unscathed by the flaying shards.
1973. The film opens with a botched operation to scoop up a potential Hungarian defector in Budapest who supposedly has the name of a mole in "The Circus," the British intelligence division overseen by the equally enigmatically monikered Control (played masterfully by John Hurt, channeling the spirit of Orwell's "1984" .) Control has long suspected the existence of such a mole; when confirmation comes from field agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), Control dispatches agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to broker the meet. Things spiral out of control: Pirdeaux is shot, and in the aftermath Control and his right hand George Smiley (Gary Oldman, all sophistication and cool understated intelligence) are forced into retirement. Control dies from illness soon after; Smiley settles in to comfortable domesticity.
1974. Smiley is called out of retirement to investigate Tarr's allegations. Smiley assembles his team and undertakes a covert investigation, treading lightly under the auspices of new Circus head Percy Alleline (Toby Jones, an impish delight) and his deputy Bill Haydon (Colin Firth, playing it very straight and very British); Alleline's promotion was based on the strength of his heading up Project Witchcraft, delivering highly sensitive Soviet documents that Alleline trades with American intelligence. Smiley conducts a series of interviews with ousted Circus operatives and employees, gradually putting the pieces into place. When Smiley finds Tarr hiding in his home, the dominoes begin to fall with startling rapidity, unveiling a tangled mess of surveillance, lust, and murder that goes back to Soviet mastermind and spy ringleader Karla.
Anything else would begin to spoil the fun. Suffice to say it all begins to fall apart. Despite the script's "down the rabbit-hole" convolutions, the major thrust of the narrative is easy to grasp. Fully appreciating the level of depth and the film's multiple layers requires multiple viewings; hints and insinuations blossom into full-on revelations, connecting the characters' relationships in subtle and scandalous ways. The interconnectivity is fairly stunning, illustrating the beauty and complexity a film is capable of with such a panoramic cast. The relationship between Prideaux and Haydon, for instance, is handled with a minimalist grace that is reminiscent of Samuel Fuller's treatment of similar subject matter in "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia"; the overwhelming beauty of matching a tear with a bullet hole amplifies the intimacy between the two, as well as the emotional devastation the events they're wrapped in have wrought on both men. A lesser director would have relied on crass dialogue and even crasser action, but Alfredson treats the confrontation with an almost ethereal translucency, the grey area magnified to a blinding sheet of denial. The recurring Christmas party scene also paints a picture of rampant, errant emotion struggling to be kept in check. With minimal expository dialogue and an astounding job of acting by all the players, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" elevates itself to a melodramatic level of tragedy virtually free of contrivance. Looks of yearning and nervous backwards glancing amp up the paranoia to near deafening levels. This is a space full of ruin and sorrow; all of the muted colors and soft focus reflect the growing sense of weariness and loss that everyone involved begins to feel.
Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema does an astounding job with Alfredson's vertigo-inducing color schemes, transforming them into putrid washes of back alley paranoia and sickly swirls of crawling menace. In van Hoytema's hands, the Christmas party becomes a tension fueled nightmare of spy/counterspy and sexual repression while a torturous interrogation turns into a brutal, splattering murder scene in a matter of milliseconds. Alfredson's desire to dwell on the bloodshed isn't quite as elegiacal as it was in "Let the Right One In" (these are intelligence agents rather than vampires) but it is atmospheric, showcasing the director's deft hand in weaving horror film aesthetics into a fairly narrowly formatted genre. The effect and mastery is similar to that displayed by Peter Jackson in his criminally underrated "The Lovely Bones"; horror out of context but gruelingly and squeamishly effective. Alfredson, like Jackson, is more than willing to remind people where his approach truly comes from; van Hoytema allows him the palette and toolbox to achieve it. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" uses violence as something of a moral counterweight, as though to suggest the reality of consequence resulting from what these people are actually involved in. While it's intense, artistic, and disturbing, it's never once exploitative: every drop of blood serves the story.
This film isn't a reinvention so much as an homage. The tropes of the genre and style remain intact, the unrelenting bleakness found at the center of the best Cold War evoking films channeled effectively via double-crosses and selfishness. Alfredson keeps his distance throughout; even the few moments of warmth allowed Smiley vanish in the face of the daunting corruption at hand. Some may accuse the director of coldness or remove, but it's what the film necessitates in order to be as engrossing as it is. Much like Anton Corbijn's "The American," the focus is on the process of the game, the endless manipulations and red herrings as Smiley opens up door after rotted door. The illusory quality of each new twist lends the proceedings a psychedelic edge, George Smiley on the precipice of the Big Nowhere. The soundtrack references the free-willed spirit of the late 1960's while simultaneously burying it under the reflexive repression and private political shame of the 1970's. Like "The Conversation," this is a film burning with deep sexual undertones, the surface gloss of spy vs. spy an involved ruse meant to obfuscate the troubling questions of desire and loyalty. Alfredson isn't holding back-he's just injecting ideology with displaced teenage lust. Smiley is plagued with memories and regrets; the mole becomes a metaphor for Smiley's attempt to grasp his own failures and impotencies.
There's no happy ending here, because there's hardly any ending at all. Every man involved (and they are all men) is torn apart. Even Smiley is forced to confront the gravity of the future, the rapidly changing face of the political landscape and the uncertainty threatening his own little slice of the world. Alfredson's advancing oppression splashes the skies in a deluge of grey; the clouds roll in as the years roll on. By 1974 a storm was building, ballooning itself on a detritus of hubris and the ever-growing tower of splintered egos; self-congratulation would become the echoing testimony to fuck-up after fuck-up. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" may only represent one fleeting, anxious moment in the Cold War timeline, but it captures the boiling antagonism and distrust that defined it better than any film in decades. That it does so in the transposed frameworks of horror and sexploitation, and produces something so elegant out of them, allows it to transcend the tag of mere history and pass into the realm of something far more hallucinatory.