It’s a 70’s world of utterly bleak environs, deeply rooted in British realism. The Soviet Cold War paranoia was at its height. Men walk around in depressing coats, wearing equally solemn faces, masking fear, anxiety. Values such as friendship, camaraderie, loyalty are questioned, professions and lives being compromised by secrets. And there’s loneliness, too. So much of it that its main protagonist George Smiley (a beautifully etched performance by Gary Oldman that deserves ovations and plaudits) paces through the film, investigating cronies and allies about the identity of the “mole”, a double-agent masquerading around the British intelligence office, the Circus, passing information to the Russian ranks, whilst at the same time ruminating on the faithlessness of his own wife Ann. This is where the film truly makes its mark. Tinker Tailor is the antithesis of the proverbial Bond-Bourne movies. No Hollywood masochistic adrenaline capers across rooftops, stunt chases across rivieras and deserts. The closest Tinker Tailor ever gets to a suspense-thriller is during the Budapest meeting of British agent played by Mark Strong gets double-crossed outside a cafe (watch the drop of the sweat on the table, suspensefully shot on frame), and Benedict Cumberbatch’s upstart Peter’s nicking of confidential files under the MI6 noses. Even the revelation of the mole seems underwhelming, not much build-up, no overblown drama. Alfredson was more interested in cinema in the deepest sense of word, employing every aspect of cinematic technique – story, characters, atmosphere, mise-en-scène – to serve a purpose.
Although it’s easy to gripe that the film is sometimes too slow-burning for its own good (people who claim this are usually those desensitised by Hollywood pyrotechnics), it’s defiantly anti-commercial, opting for mood rather than plot. Whilst being far from a perfect film, it’s a far cry from being mono-dimensional. At least Tinker Tailor does not pander down to a lesser-brained audience. There’s a scene where Oldman, his inscrutable face withered by time and forlorn eyes partly hidden behind his thick-rimmed spectacles, sits in his apartment, telling a story of a previous faux-pas about the fate of his lighter given to him by his wife that brings such a gut–punch. This is a man who has seen far too many betrayals, too many sins, that trust is already a forgotten affair. It’s a scene so telling, so powerful that you don’t need a man leaping across a roof to get some depth.
This is one for the brains. Alfredson’s vision is an incredibly restrained, intelligently crafted period piece that puts the spy genre back into human realism, questioning values like friendship, loyalty and trust like pawns being moved around in a bigger chess game. And it has Oldman, whose central performance is one for the ages.