Steeped in the monochrome color palette and noir soundtrack of 1970s espionage cinema, Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carré’s classic bestselling spy novel offers smart, nostalgic entertainment for a discerning adult audience. Set in 1973 at the height of the Cold War, the film turns on the suspicion that a double agent has infiltrated Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), a.k.a. MI6. Shortly after a botched operation to ferret out the mole ends his career, Control (John Hurt) dies, leaving his investigation in the hands of retired operative George Smiley (Gary Oldman).
Control has narrowed his suspects to five men at the very top of “the Circus” and assigned each an aptly chosen code name borrowed from a children’s nursery rhyme: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), a.k.a. “Tinker,” who views Control’s departure as an opportunity to reorganize the SIS; the dapper Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), a.k.a. “Tailor,” who charms both the ladies in the typing pool and the young agents on their way up; Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), a.k.a. “Soldier,” a working-class journeyman amid middle- and upper-class colleagues; Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), a.k.a. “Poor Man,” who immediately aligns with Alleline when Control is forced out; and … Smiley himself.
With grayed blond hair and owlish glasses, Oldman disappears into his role, not only physically but behaviorally. Smiley is a still man, watching and waiting, while his mind whirs, processing and analyzing years’ worth of data, information and memories. He’s steadfast in his mission but not without vulnerability—namely, his estranged wife Ann (Katerina Vasilieva).
Off the books, Smiley launches an inquiry with the help of junior intelligence officer Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), who’s still on duty at the Circus while looking into his superiors. His scenes in particular, in which he infiltrates his own workplace, are tensely wrought, and Cumberbatch plays the idealistic hero who harbors secrets of his own with poignancy and grace.
The pair uncovers a conspiracy that involves agent-turned-schoolteacher Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), rogue field operative Ricki Tarr (handsome Tom Hardy) and beautiful Russian bride Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova) and links Smiley’s colleagues—his friends—to his nemesis Karla, a Soviet intelligence officer. Although the identity of the double agent remains a mystery until the end, his unveiling can’t help but be somewhat of a letdown—we’re given his name right up front, after all, and a one-in-five chance of guessing it right doesn’t leave too much room for surprise.
Still, Alfredson brings stylish wit to the production, using the edges of his frame to hide information that, when revealed, imbues a sense of discovery in the viewer. Maria Djurkovic’s production design is rich in period detail, particularly technological. (This is an era long before cell phones, remember.) Additionally, Alberto Iglesias’ score is atmospheric and clever (incorporating diegetic sound into the soundtrack) when the scene isn’t saturated in quiet.
Alfredson previously directed Let the Right One In, and in some ways his follow-up is as chilly as that Swedish vampire flick. Like his adolescent bloodsucker, these career spies are always on guard, even among those they consider their closest friends. In a profession founded on loyalty and ideals, what they fear most is deceit and betrayal—of each other and of themselves.
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Writers: Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan
Starring: Gary Oldman, Kathy Burke, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Dencik, Colin Firth, Stephen Graham, Tom Hardy, Ciarán Hinds, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Simon McBurney and Mark Strong
Release Date: Dec. 9, 2011