Expanding upon the style that brought him international fame with 2008's Let the Right One In, Tomas Alfredson makes a chilly, claustrophobic character drama out of John Le Carré's classic spy thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This is even more impressive considering that the film primarily takes place in vast sets colored in warm, oaken browns (albeit the kind Joyce used to signify death and ossification). Alfredson's vampire film similarly used its expansive white space to actually constrict the frame, and here he goes one step further, swapping out intense but myopic angst for loyalty fears with global consequences. Where youth merely think the whole world is against them, it truly could be if one of these spies slips up, hence why the members of the organization seem to spend more time monitoring each other than anything going on in Russia.
Reveling in his period setting, Alfredson nevertheless, as he did with the 1981-set Let the Right One In, transcends it, presenting Soviet fears and immaculately recreated fashion and design while also crafting a self-contained world with those tools that speaks to more universal, timeless issues. Stylistically, Alfredson has made perhaps the quintessential spy aesthetic: he particularly uses his early-'70s setting for the preponderance of smoking, with numerous shots blanketed in nicotine fogs. But then his elegant camera pulls back to reveal almost Tatiesque structures of giant, voyeuristic windows, also relying often on reflections and even 180-degree rule breaks to stress reversals and the possibility of double agents. To match Le Carré's narrative of ferreting out moles, Alfredson literally uses smoke and mirrors, neither of which can obscure those massive, transparent windows that bare everyone's personal lives to all surveillance.
Boiling down Le Carré's dense text to its gist, Tinker Tailor concerns the possibility of a Russian mole inside British intelligence in 1973. Before his (natural, it should be said) death, the head of the "Circus," codenamed Control (John Hurt), suspected one of the higher-ups in the organization of feeding information to the Kremlin. A botched mission to recover the name of that person in Hungary only confirms something is wrong, but before he can do anything else, Control finds himself forced out of the service by the same ambitious up-and-comers who roused his concerns over a leak in the Circus.
With Control's passing, the civilian overseer of the Circus brings the old man's friend, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), out of retirement to investigate the case. Originally written to be the realistic "anti-Bond" by the actual spy Le Carré, Smiley lets Oldman display another facet to his acting. Known primarily for his explosive, grandiose screen presence, Oldman here plays a mild, calm, unremarkable man who looks almost genetically predisposed to bureaucracy. With a soft voice and glasses so huge they actually mask his eyes and recast his flat, unexpressive lips as toad-like, Oldman looks like a grandfather, not a master spy capable of sussing out a double agent without even setting foot in the Circus. Yet Oldman merely subsumes his old intensity, never having to raise his voice or even whisper forcefully to let the audience know that his look of banal normalcy is a carefully calculated front. It's the most gripping performance the actor has given in ages, all the more impressive for its thorough restraint.
Reducing the novel to a two-and-a-half-hour film necessitates a sharp cutting of plot, turning an already complicated story into a potential labyrinth of unspoken clues. I confess I got lost a few times along the way before finding my way back and wondering how I'd ever gotten sidetracked. But Alfredson never lets the overall atmosphere fade, and indeed the structure becomes useful for more than just parading around an all-star cast of British talent. It places the entire work in opposition to the Bond mythos, of an id-driven übermensch who could shoot and screw his way into the most impregnable fortress. The spy work of Tinker Tailor is a group effort, with each person responsible for different things and also affected by their own hangups, desires and fears. One character (played by a youthful-looking but harrowed Tom Hardy), not only has to deal with being listed as a defector but with the disappearance of his Russian lover Irina, whose peril wracks him with worry.
That mingling of the political and the personal is where the film best succeeds. Alfredson frames the narrative in unexpectedly emotional terms, exposing national affiliations to be just as narrowly focused yet passionately felt as the longing and teenage anomie of Let the Right One In. Even his visualization of Smiley's wife's adultery is more mournful than outlandish, and its importance to the final reveal only seals the link between turncoat treason and intimate backstabbing. I actually found myself on the verge of tears with a murder in the dénouement, an act framed from start to finish not with tension but sorrow, a grieving for inflicted pain that includes the regret of the revenge itself. This approach tempers the fun the director has with the plot's convoluted structure and his voyeuristic dollhouse aesthetic, giving it a serious bedrock that makes its charms more fully rewarding. In a year with so many huge statements from artists, Alfredson's film is a subtle subversion of everything we expect from its genre, one made all the more irresistible for its focus on character over mechanics.