“These days nothing is genuine.” So grumbles Control (a wonderfully misanthropic John Hurt), the head of the Circus—aka British intelligence—and, he’s right. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a world filled with shades of grey, literally and figuratively. The colors are all drab and muted on screen and the only time anything bright shows up is the crimson blood. The sets always seem grubby, echoing the nasty nature of the work, and there’s a palpable feeling of despair.
The time is 1973 (so everything that happens on screen is almost laughably low tech by modern standards), at the height of the Cold War. Control suspects there’s a mole in his own department. He sends an agent Prideaux (a gaunt, haunted Mark Strong) to Hungary with instructions to be on the lookout, but the mission’s a disaster. Control loses his job as does another officer, Smiley (Gary Oldman), who will soon be the film’s main protagonist. The fact that we don’t hear our main protagonist say a single word for the first 18 minutes of the film is an early sign of how very different a spy movie this is than anything in the Bond, Bourne, or Mission Impossible vein. As is the fact that our main protagonist is a very mild mannered, tired, middle aged, cuckolded husband who never so much as fires a gun.
In fact, not many people actually do fire weapons on screen in this leisurely paced film. The action is quite sparse; no exciting chase scenes, shoot-outs, or martial arts battles here! Just a lot of dull desk work and research that’s occasionally punctuated with brutal violence. There’s plenty of sex too, (gay and straight!) but none of it’s for Smiley, though some of it’s for his wife, Ann, whose face we never actually see, just as we never see the face of Karla, the Soviet head of intelligence, who is Smiley’s arch-enemy and whose presence seems to shadow the entire film. Smiley’s met Karla once but can’t remember what Karla looked like.
What we do get is a great deal of sacrifice; everything; friendship, loyalty, honor, love, hope is placed down on the altar of espionage work. One young spy states bluntly his only condition is safe extraction for his lover: “I want a family. I don’t want to end up like you lot.” What we and his superiors know, that he doesn’t, is that his lover’s already been executed.
The movie’s a veritable Who’s Who of great British actors; besides Oldman, Strong, and Hurt, we have legends like Colin Firth, Kathy Burke, Toby Jones, and Ciaran Hinds and up and comers like Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy. All of them in top form, all making memorable turns, even those who, like Kathy Burke, in the role of a retired desk analyst, has barely a few minutes on screen. In the end, the twists and turns of this baroque and intricately layered film do resolve in a conclusion that’s satisfying if not happy. In the world of Tinker Tailor, happiness is the only thing more elusive than the truth.