Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Written by Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan
Generally there are two types of spy films. The first is the most popular and that is the action film. Great examples of these types of films would be the James Bond series or the Jason Bourne series; films which are chock full of action and intrigue and leave you on the edge of your seat throughout the fast paced runtime. Then there is the second kind, the much lesser known, less popular variety of spy thriller: the action-less spy film. To be honest I find it difficult to even come up with any really good examples of this type of film, though I am sure I have seen one or two, but Tomas Alfredson, who burst onto the international cinema scene with his film Let the Right One In, masterfully constructs just such a film with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
The “Circus” is the group of international spies who work for the British government out of London. Their head, Control (John Hurt), has suspicions that one of the operatives working within the Circus is a double agent for communist Russia. He keeps his suspicions secret, dispatching one agent (Mark Strong) to find more information. Later Control dies and along with him his suspicions until the Minister suspects the same thing and he appoints former Circus member Smiley (Gary Oldman) to find the mole with the help of his associate Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch). Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones and David Dencik play the suspect spies, but which one is feeding the Russians their information?
I have heard the film described as a couple of things before I had the chance to see it for myself: a slow burn, boring. After having seen it I can completely understand both the adjectives when applied to the film. Tomas Alfredson is impressive in his handling of the material, which is based on the book of the same name by John le Carre, which I have not personally read. The attention to detail and his use of the camera make for a tense and singular mood throughout the film. The cinematography is one of the many strengths of the film and seems to observe everything it is meant to and sort of float about the proceedings, adding to the quietly tense mood which surrounds the proceedings. In that regard, it is certainly a slow burn.
However, I can see the boring side of it as well. Because of the attention to detail, and because of the minimalist approach by Alfredson, revealing only the bear minimum of information at any given time, great attention must also be paid by the viewer in return for the same attention paid by the filmmaker. This focus which is required by the viewer can either create a rewarding experience, or a boring one depending on perspective. It is a slow burn, no doubt, but the burn never seems to lead to the powder keg many may expect of such a spy thriller, but that is only a detriment to those who see it as such. Personally it worked for me because it was able to maintain the mood of the film from start to finish.
What really aides Alfredson in the approach he chooses to use for the film is the amazing cast with which he has surrounded himself. It all starts in the middle with Gary Oldman, but trickles down throughout the many British bit players who are convincing in all their roles. Any film which features Colin Firth in a smaller role, or John Hurt, or Tom Hardy or pretty much anybody in the film has strength in its numbers when it comes to an ensemble cast, of which this film may trump any from 2011. The actors understanding of the understated, subtle mood of the film bolsters that mood with the moxie of its veteran cast. I think I ultimately fall somewhere in the middle of the slow burn, boring crowd. I have immense respect for the craft of the film and Alfredson is definitely a director to watch now after his last two films, but I can’t help but admit that I would have liked there to a be a powder keg somewhere.