Let's just get this out of the way: I really wasn't a fan of le Carre's novel. Though I could tell that MI6 veteran le Carre knew the subject matter inside and out, he simply wasn't a storyteller. As a result, this intriguing tale of espionage and investigation was buried under so many worthless plotlines and muddled flashbacks that the end result was convoluted, boring, and borderline unreadable. Sorry, but I really do feel that the book is overrated. So here's Tomas Alfredson, late of the excellent Let the Right One In, helming a film adaptation of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." And he was clearly not fucking around. It isn't just any director who can assemble a cast comprised of so many heavyweights as Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, and Benedict Cumberbatch, just to name a few. There was so much talent going into this film and so much buzz coming out of it that I simply had to give this film a look.
The main thrust of the story is simple enough: It's the Cold War and a select few members of MI6 (known internally as "the Circus") have discovered the presence of a Soviet mole somewhere in their highest ranks. An old operative named George Smiley (Gary Oldman), who was recently forced into retirement, is covertly brought back to find out the mole's identity. This is where the movie gets complicated, as Smiley weaves his way through telegrams, money transfers, and multiple witness testimonies, all to recreate the past, one plotline at a time.
It should come as no surprise that the cast is uniformly phenomenal. In le Carre's hands, these characters were boring and very difficult to tell apart. In the hands of these actors, the characters are vivid and wonderfully fleshed out. Even better, a couple of characters (Ann, Smiley's estranged wife, and Karla, his Soviet nemesis) were kept hidden from the camera at all times. In the context of the film, this was a wonderful stylistic choice.
Still, though the primary and secondary actors are all outstanding, this is definitely Gary Oldman's show. He does a very elegant job at crafting an anti-James Bond, an old yet intelligent everyman who could blend in anywhere. Perhaps more impressively, Oldman plays Smiley as a dispassionate and neutral observer, keeping his thoughts and emotions hidden behind a cold poker face throughout the proceedings. The only time when this composure slips is during a rather tired and drunken moment, which turns out to be the best scene in the movie.
The pacing in this film is a huge improvement over the book. The screenwriters did an excellent job of clearing up the film's muddled timeline through the use of voice-overs and flashbacks. The two-hour running time also helped immensely, as it forced the filmmakers to tighten up the dialogue and dispense with any redundant plotlines (though I wish that useless Bill Roach storyline could have been done away with altogether). The codewords and spy jargon have also been drastically simplified, which helps a lot. The screenwriters even went so far as to change the novel's sequence of events, re-ordering them in a way that's easier to follow.
Visually, the movie is every bit as aggressively neutral as its characters. The camera movements are very decidedly unobtrusive, and the colors are all muted to the point of being monochrome. This actually works in the movie's favor, as it creates a great deal of atmosphere. However, this total lack of passion also works against the film in a very important way. It's the only real complaint I have against the film, but it's a big one that affects almost every frame of the movie.
When the movie is focused on the fates of individual characters, it works great. The filmmakers (particularly the sound designers and the actors) do a wonderful job of creating tension when characters are at risk of getting caught or killed. However, when the movie is focused on the larger global conflict, the tension isn't nearly as strong. Remember, the main conflict is that there's a mole in MI6, and he has to he found or else... or else what, exactly?
I mean, I know that this is the middle of the Cold War, and the nuclear apocalypse could begin at any moment, but those monumental stakes are never really felt in this film. Take Watchmen, for example. Say what you will about that film, but at least it took every possible effort to establish the USSR and nuclear warfare as very real and very dangerous threats on a global scale. That's extremely important, especially for those audience members (such as yours truly) who never knew what it was like to live with the bomb constantly hanging overhead.
There is one passing line of dialogue to vaguely bring up the Soviet threat and the possibility of WWIII, but it's extremely vague and lasts about two seconds. There's also a rather brutal interrogation and execution at the start of the third act, but again, that's an example of a personal and intimate threat as opposed to a global one. By and large, the characters in this film -- and thus, the film itself -- treat espionage as an end in itself and not as a means toward an end. This apathy toward the larger global stakes knocks a great degree of tension out of this struggle to control one of the largest spy organizations in the world.
For the "tl, dr" crowd: The movie's central conflict lacks tension because there are no defined stakes to be lost for failure or for taking too long. However, it's hard to blame the filmmakers for this, because it was one of the many narrative flaws sewn directly into the source text.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is certainly not a bad film, but it is a frustrating one. The cinematography is impeccable, the actors are perfect from start to finish, the score is wonderful, and the direction is superb. Yet for all the many ways the screenwriters improved over the source material, they still forgot to ask the one essential question that le Carre didn't answer: What if Smiley fails?
I know that I'm in the minority for not thinking that the film is absolutely perfect (and I never rule out the possibility of being wrong), but I can still give this film a hearty recommendation. It's absolutely worth seeing and it definitely deserves quite a few awards nominations. But best of the year? Not even close.