Two men talk about the comparative virtues of pörkölt and goulash outside a Budapest café in the early 1970s in one of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s early scenes. Their ordinary conversation is freighted with extraordinary tension. Some of it’s apparent in what they say, particularly when one makes a joke about Hungarian pork ending up in Moscow. Some of it comes from their surroundings, which appear just south of ordinary. The street looks a little too empty, and the waiter a little too sweaty. Then, when one gets up to leave, he causes an eruption of violence and the tension ratchets up further. So it goes throughout Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carré’s novel, which channels the author’s atmosphere of unceasing suspicion, overlapping alliances, and moral decay with such admirable precision, theaters would need only to pipe in cigarette smoke and the rattle of a failing Eastern Bloc HVAC system to make the experience immersive.
Coming from a veteran of British intelligence, le Carré’s fiction offers a counterpoint to the glamorous spy tales of Ian Fleming and others. In his books, espionage is a high-stakes game of bluffs and double-bluffs played by unsmiling men in sparsely appointed rooms. Here, Gary Oldman plays one of the most famous of those unsmiling men, frequent le Carré protagonist George Smiley, a British-intelligence lifer who, as the film opens, has been forced into semi-retirement following the high-profile failure, and subsequent death, of his mentor (John Hurt). When it becomes apparent that a mole remains in place in a position of power back at “The Circus,” Oldman doesn’t get to enjoy his time off for long.
Not that he seems to be enjoying it much anyway. Apart from the humanizing touches provided by the unhappy details of his home life, Smiley is defined by his job, and Oldman plays him as lost when he’s away from the world of shuffling paper, phone transcripts, and divided allegiances. Oldman is no stranger to big performances, but here, he retreats into stillness, silence, and small, telling gestures. While others panic, he observes, always craning to see the chessboard, not just the pieces. It’s a brilliant piece of acting that allows Oldman to serve as the film’s still center amid an able cast that includes Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch, all circling around him, helping or hindering his search for the truth, often while working agendas of their own.
Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan compress le Carré’s labyrinthine plot, but don’t simplify it. Its dealings and double-dealings will probably be better understood on a second viewing, but it only takes one to appreciate Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as a film. After establishing an atmosphere of nearly unbearable dread, Alfredson keeps thickening and chilling it. There’s less snow here than in the Swedish director’s previous project, the coming-of-age vampire film Let The Right One In, but Tinker shares its pervasive coldness. Much of the action transpires against a backdrop of overcast skies, gray institutional buildings, and anonymous apartment buildings, which look the same on either side of the Iron Curtain. There’s a sly bit of commentary in that detail, as if the Cold War had drained the light and beauty from its super-powered antagonists’ homelands. But the toll is just as evident in Oldman’s face as he stares past those around him, analyzing the information, planning his next move, thinking more than most, and feeling only what he still lets himself feel.