Office Geopolitics: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

12/07/2011 4:00 AM |

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Directed by Tomas Alfredson

Though arguably little in recent spy cinema matches the diplomatic sketches glimpsed through the WikiLeaks cables, Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of the John Le Carre novel mostly makes a virtue of this world’s murk. Set in the multiply ironically named “Circus” of the British Secret Service, the flashback-tinted Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy shows the Swedish director of Let the Right One In embracing another clammy institutional backdrop, moving from the apartment block of Let to the anemic back offices of an aging England in its early 70s.

A subdued Gary Oldman in spectacles drag plays spy-catcher Smiley, tasked with rooting out a high-level mole after an agent gets trapped and whacked in Hungary. Oldman’s study in coiled repression is matched by reserved storytelling that largely dispenses with narrative signposts, letting us sink into an enveloping but not titillating paranoia—a vault of standing personal and national mysteries and vendettas. No one in the cast (John Hurt, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, David Dencik) stands out for long, but far from feeling like a waste, the rotation reinforces the sense of stars in a closed world (where reputation cuts both ways).

Call it office geopolitics, complete with Christmas parties featuring Soviet anthems, though not embracing the same self-effacement as Alec Guinness in the role of Smiley in the nearly five-hour 1979 British miniseries. As some version of the truth gradually emerges, around Smiley as much as thanks to his efforts, the chess game recalls the too-perfect fact of Le Carr√©’s own involvement in espionage (to the displeasure, surprise, surprise, of his superiors). Spy as creator and participant at once—the choice of which side you are on being (as one reflective line has it) as much an aesthetic choice as a moral one moral one.

Opens December 9