There is very little to say about such an astoundingly efficient, subdued spy thriller. While the stakes are high, the characters generally fall somewhere between stereotypical British restraint, and Scandinavian lethargy (the director, whose previous feature was 2008’s Let the Right One In, is Swedish). Most of the spies do not burn with conviction for the job, but instead are working in a routine. Their job is their job, and if people die, are tortured, or turned, that is accepted as part of the work. The movie, in that way, is a procedural. The main character, Smiley (Gary Oldman), is asked to locate the mole situated in the top echelons of British foreign intelligence during the height of the Cold War. He knows the mole is one of his ex-colleagues and begins, systematically, gathering information.
The mystery itself is not of the variety where the suspects’ list is slowly narrowed down until the culprit is revealed. Although most audience members will have their private theories about the identity of the mole, there is truly very little revealed until the final moments. The calculation and sophistication of the characters comes through – which is important, considering how little there is to empathize with in these characters. They become admirable, instead of approachable.
The subdued direction of the film works perfectly with the subject matter. The entire film is shot in astoundingly grey colors, establishing not only the time period, but also the moral ambiguity of the characters. Gary Oldman’s character, in one of the earliest scenes, is getting fitted for new glasses – what a perfect image to start on, for someone that will spend the rest of the film investigating the people perhaps closest to him (if anyone could be said to be close to Smiley).
In such a cast, the only true standout would be an actor that can’t deliver, and there is certainly nobody like that here. All the same, Smiley is naturally the most memorable character. Gary Oldman’s performance is pitch perfect, with a perpetual ironic smile stuck on his face. It seems almost like Gary Oldman smiled disingenuously in an awkward social situation once, years ago, and never stopped. The scene where he recounts meeting the head of the Russian intelligence is incredibly intense – well written, acted, directed.
This movie is a fascinating portrayal of Cold War intelligence – if you would like an estimate outside of old James Bond movies of the way things actually were, watch Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.