George Smiley a grey eminence in British espionage, is called in from retirement to expose a mole. The alarm bells sounded when an extremely exclusively secret mission was thrwarted through an obvious and troubling betrayal. Ok, action movie time! No, and again, no. This is not just a spy story, it's a John Le Carre spy story. There's a difference.
This is not a Bourne/Bond sparking circuit board of a spy movie, it's a tale of patient deduction, of examining evidence and testimony, of gauging the meaning of a lifted brow or turn of phrase to establish the fundamentals of loyalty or guilt. This is told through time shifts and is ordered more from the importance a given scene's information holds than a linear progression. A near constant shift between past and present is eased in an elegantly few shots of Smiley's visit to his opptometrist: big 70s square glasses = present: small round 60s frames = past. There are other signifiers of this kind of shift carefully interwoven into the film's fabric to inform without distraction. Care is a good word to keep in mind with this piece as everything you see on screen and hear from the speakers has been put there with expertise.
Now if I say that when the plot's chief revelation happened my reaction was simply, "oh, it's him" rather than anything like, "ahaaaaa!" it isn't from disappointment. This film does have a plot and its tight but it also has a number of themes which are of equal or even greater importance playing throughout. These are what I have taken with me.
The first of these is the portrayal of post-empire Britain, a place of smoke-filled burnt-brown office walls, raindrops on dirty windows, and the kind of fatigue that seems to keep all its victims in a life long grip. It's the 1970s and the UK hasn't been a player in the grinding Cold War for about a decade. To all but the very inner circle, the spy was an unwelcome relic, a dowdy reminder of the hysteria of the 50s. What might strike the common punter of the time as dusty irrelevance is the focus, a lot of clerical work, but that's just the way it looks; what's at stake is what's always been at stake: national security.
The other theme is a human, personal one that forms an examination of betrayal, whether at the level of high spies or in the kitchens and bedrooms of the people you know. To me, this was what the film was about: the central hunt for the mole and its many passing revelations of the worst of human desire and resulting distrust and violence, building a picture of a society in perennial trouble where friends and colleagues are contacts rather than intimates and love, however powerful a force it remains, a thing of quantifiable value for use in trade.
I'm mentioning the cast this late in the review as their excellence (a roll call of UK greatness, past and present) forms the texture of the stories of this film (ie both the spy story and the personal ones) more than is usual. If you want a demonstration dvd of underplaying for your home cinema system, this is the title to get.
Tomas Alfredson shows that he has the strength to move from something as signature as Let the Right One In into such a subtle piece as this which puts him on my to-watch list of promising careers.
Tinker, Tailor cannot be for everybody as a spy movie but as a film about aging, disappointment, and simply making the decision to shut up and start coping, its a powerful sleeper in its own right.