“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” directed by Tomas Alfredson, looks and feels like a movie out of a different era. It is a thoughtful spy thriller with a much slower pace that relies on a musical score to build the momentum rather than bombs or explosions. If the “Mission Impossible” series is at one end of the spy caper spectrum, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is at the other end.
The movie is based on a book by John Le Carre and is a remake of a 1979 film. The story starts in the early 1970s, in a time when the Cold War is in full effect. Control (John Hurt) is the head of the British intelligence unit MI6 when he begins to believe that one of his cohorts is a mole for the Soviet side.
He suspects the counter spy is one of five men who work alongside him and he has heard that a Hungarian has information on the person who has been passing information to the spy. When Control sends Agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) into the field to investigate, the operation goes wrong and Control is ousted from the agency.
Along with Control’s resignation, his colleague George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is forced into retirement. Alfredson is not afraid of allowing a quiet moment in his films.
After the resignations, the film plays for a long, quiet moment as Smiley goes through the motions of his new life. He swims in a lake. He checks the mail and leaves letters for someone who no longer lives with him on an end table. He pours himself a drink. Smiley’s life is nothing without “the circus” – the code word the agents use to refer to the intelligence agency.
A year after the Budapest operation goes wrong, a government official approaches Smiley. He tells Smiley of Control’s suspicions and asks Smiley to do some investigation on the top agents. By looking around Control’s apartment, Smiley finds that his colleague suspected the mole was one of the five top agents – Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), or Bill Haydon (Colin Firth.) Smiley was the last suspect on the list. Control believed one of the men was sharing information with a top KBG agent, Karla. He gave them code names – tinker, tailor, soldier.
Smiley chooses one of his former agents who is still working, Peter Gulliam (Benedict Cumberbatch), to be his inside point man and has another retired colleague to help on the outside.
He starts his investigation by looking at any employees who recently retired or left the Circus since he and Control left.
Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke), whose job it was to review archival footage, said that she was forced to retire after she shared some information with the head guys.
She had seen an image with their Soviet informant Polyakov (Konstantin Khabenskiy) that showed him with high-ranking military officials. She suspected Polyakov might be a double agent. But she was shut down by the top echelon.
As Smiley is doing his investigation, the film moves into flashbacks of a holiday party. It is a work party, and Smiley is there with his wife, Ann, who has since left him. Smiley thinks back to his colleague’s actions and tries to remember clues that might help him decipher which is the mole.
Smiley gets a break in his investigation when a rogue agent shows up at his house unannounced. Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) has been missing for six months – he is wanted by the MI6 who believe who has switched sides and by the Soviets who believe he is spying on them as well.
Ricki tells Smiley the story of why he stayed in Russia. He was sent there to follow a mark, who he quickly decided did not have any information to share.
But the man’s wife seemed as though she might have something to share. Ricki had orders to return to London, but decided to stay on his own. He approaches Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova) and the two begin an affair.
After several months, Irina says that she knows Ricki is a spy and she knows what he is after. She promises to share “the mother of all secrets” with him if he can guarantee her safe passage to start a new life in the West.
Ricki has risked returning to Britain because he wants Smiley’s help in rescuing Irina.
Smiley is skeptical of everything he is told, and he uses Peter to confirm that Ricki sent a telegram on the day he claims to have sent one. Though there are no explosions in the film, one of the most tense moments is the one in which Peter tries to sneak classified information out of the building. It’s a moment that causes viewers to hold their breath until Peter is out safely.
The movie is a little slow-moving, especially at the beginning. There are a lot of threads to follow as well, as Smiley tries to find out how the Budapest operation and Ricki Tarr are connected.
By the end we find out which of the men is the spy and how it was all pulled off.