Moody and melancholic, its foggy London atmosphere chilling the screen, its grey squat buildings of 1973 Eastern Bloc Europe deadening its hopes, this latter-day adaptation of John LeCarré's 1974 classic spy thriller is near pitch perfect in its boulevard of broken dreams demeanor. The spies shown here, played by a slew of brilliantly understated actors, have never come in from the cold (to paraphrase another LeCarré novel), and as broken down and beaten as its main protagonist, George Smiley, played with a deceptive canniness by Gary Oldman, seems to be, that too is how weathered, how battled and bedraggled this Cold War remnant shows itself to be - and that is exactly how this film should feel.
Much of this aforementioned gloomy, though appropriately so atmosphere is given its form by the apt direction of Tomas Alfredson, the Swedish director who gave us the atmospheric horror film Let the Right One In (and that's how you do a romantic vampire movie!). A great pic to direct a pic as perversely period as this one. Add to this the melodic setting-appropriate score by Alberto Iglesias, the composer of choice for the majority of Pedro Almodóvar's films, and the mood-setting cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema, the man who photographed the aforementioned Swedish vampire film, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an intriguing blend of neo-noir, spy thriller and wouldbe psychological horror movie, all rolled into a chilling, classically-styled cold war entanglement of red herrings and MacGuffins galore.
But it is in this very same convoluted screenplay where TTSS begins to unravel - or perhaps never quite ravels enough. Many have said (I have not read the book myself) that LeCarré's labyrinthine novel is way too much to capture in a feature length work of cinema, and that even the nearly five hour 1979 UK mini-series version could hardly handle the multitudes of twists and turns that LeCarré had put into his bestseller. This may very well be true as we see a lot of random threads go in and out here, without ever receiving any sort of denouement, and even though the film is not that particularly difficult to follow (many of its detractors claim it to be close to incoherent), the screenplay by Bridget O'Conner and Peter Straughan, seems at times lazy, but at others downright bewildered and bewildering. But then this may just be bellyaching on my part considering how in tune every other layer of the film is with what this spy thriller needs to be.
So while the acting is top notch - not just Oldman, but John Hurt, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch and especially Tom Hardy and Colin Firth - replete with immaculately enunciated spytalk and desperate longing, and Alfredson's concoction of 1970's period drama is near pitch perfect, the film seems to fall a bit flat when it comes to its rendering of a storyline. This is no truer than in the end, when we finally find out just who the searched for spy actually is, and a feeling of ending not with a bang but with a whimper reverberates throughout this cold cold work of cinematic fiction - especially when the films leads, crescendo like, to what should be a big bang. Then again, this is just the culmination of a rather workingman ethic of the time period, so perhaps it does work in a way. - and perhaps this is just bellyaching on my part. But whatever the case, just to feel the long dead paranoiac atmosphere of Soviet spies and wondering just who is listening in, is worth having to put up with a little less than what meets the eye.