Inside the circus: ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’


By Tressa Eckermann, Senior Staff Writer

“There’s a rotten apple, Jim, at the very top.” So begins what is easily one of the best films of this or recent years, Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”

The film, which is based on the 1974 novel by John le Carré, begins in 1973 as Control (John Hurt), head of British Intelligence, aka “The Circus” asks agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to travel to Hungary to meet with an informant who wants to sell information. The operation goes south and a year later, Control and his right hand man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), are forced out of the Circus.

Smiley is brought out of retirement by Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), a civil servant, to investigate claims that there is a mole at the top of the Circus and has been there for a long time. These claims have been made by MI6 agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy). Smiley begins working with another disgraced MI6 agent, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), to investigate the men Control believed could be the mole, each code named, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and Poorman.

The plot is dense, with so many twists and turns that to say anything more about it would reveal too much. Everything about “Tinker Tailor” is restrained and muted, including an absolutely stunning performance by Oldman. Smiley looks like your average middle-aged man who has spent too many years in an office. Yet behind his bulky glasses, deeply lined face and pasty skin, is a cold and calculating career manipulator. Oldman is so shockingly good there are moments when you realize you’re watching something extraordinary pass across the screen.   

Cumberbatch—known to TV fans as Sherlock Holmes on the BBC series “Sherlock”—is exceptionally strong, heartbreaking and easily the best supporting actor of the year. Hardy and Strong also give powerful performances, while Colin Firth, is equal parts charm and danger.

If any movie would be Oscar material, “Tinker Tailor” is it. Alfredson chose to shoot the film with long lens shots that only add to the unsettling nature of the film. You get the feeling you’re watching something that you’re not meant to see. One of the most stunning scenes comes almost halfway through the film, when Peter is sent into “the Lyon’s den,” to retrieve information. It’s the most jarring and overtly thrilling scene in the movie.  

But “Tinker Tailor” is much more than Oscar bait. It’s a throwback to a style of filmmaking that hasn’t been done properly in a long time. It’s quiet, subtle, wrenching and just about as perfect as you can get from a movie these days. It proves you don’t need explosions or gratuitous violence to make an impact. The movie never overstays its welcome. In fact, the two hours are used so well, you’re actually sad to see the final credits roll.

As Control says early in the film, “A man should know when to leave the party.”


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