My original theatrical review of the film:
Based on the John le Carré novel, an enduring classic of the spy genre, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is set in a world of British espionage far removed from the milieu navigated by James Bond. le Carré's MI6, the Circus, is populated by dowdy middle-aged men with shifty eyes and big overcoats. Their job doesn't involve car chases through beautiful European cities or cutting-edge gadgets, but is instead a complicated, delicate, and very dangerous dance of intelligence, counterintelligence, deceit, and paranoia. And George Smiley, who is in at least five le Carré novels and is played here by Gary Oldman, is everything Bond isn't: a master spy as quiet as he is unassuming.
The plot, unfolding at the height of the Cold War, centers on a search for a mole placed high in the Circus. The suspects include the ambitious Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), the charming Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), and the tough Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds). Smiley, who was let go from the Circus along with the powerful "Control" (John Hurt) after a mission in Hungary ended with an agent, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), being shot and captured, is enlisted to investigate and find the mole from the outside. Aiding him is Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), the Circus' head "scalphunter" (strong-arm men who deal in assassinations, assaults, and other unpleasant, blood-stained necessities of espionage). Also figuring into the labyrinthine plot is Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), a scalphunter who, while following a mid-level Soviet bureaucrat, began an affair with the man's disillusioned wife, Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova), and convinced her to defect.
Screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan do a smashing job fitting le Carré's brilliant, complex storytelling into the tight confines of a two-hour film. Details are fast and subtle--a loaded glance here, a name dropped there--so it will not be the easiest viewing experience for those who have not read the novel, but everything which needs to be present is and almost nothing more (this is a fat-free film), supporting characters are given just enough breathing room to come alive, and the dialogue is often beautiful and always intelligent. O'Connor and Straughan also understand how powerful what is suggested, but not shown can truly be. Two key characters--Ann, Smiley's unfaithful wife, and "Karla," the code name for his counterpart in Soviet intelligence--are essential and Smiley's biggest burdens, but neither is seen head on by audience. They exist only in the corner of the frame, obscured, and in the words of other people. Haunting.
Behind the camera, director Tomas Alfredson, following the acclaimed vampire picture Let the Right One In, further cements himself as a near-unrivaled master of atmosphere and suspense. The recreation of '70s London--the claustrophobic and grey offices of the Circus in particular, crowded with bulging files and melancholy people--is so detailed, so vivid, one can all but smell the damp tweed. Alfredson and the writers maintain a general hum of anxiety throughout--allegiances and suspicions always shifting, much not as it seems--and include a handful of bravura suspense sequences for good measure, including a very tense one where Guillam is assigned by Smiley to steal documents from the heart of the Circus ("If you're caught, you can't mention me").
Gary Oldman is splendid in the lead role. It is a very minimalist turn, reminiscent of Alain Delon in Le Samouraï, by an actor best known for colorful and explosive performances in films such as Sid and Nancy, True Romance, and The Professional. Oldman doesn't even say a word for the first eighteen minutes of the film; this is a performance of small gestures, quietly uttered words, and incisive stares. Smiley is a brilliant spy because he is a brilliant observer (albeit one with a single, significant blind spot, which is exploited), and Oldman perfectly conveys this. And there are a few scenes where Oldman gets to deliver a more traditional performance, including a poignant monologue describing Smiley's one physical meeting with "Karla," his archenemy, and the actor shines in those, too. Of the blemish-free supporting cast, the highlight is Benedict Cumberbatch, quietly intense as Peter Guillam. As played by Cumberbatch, Guillam is positioned as a young man well on his way to being as insular and sad as George Smiley. A scene where he leaves his live-in partner out of fear for his safety--the character's homosexuality is exclusive to the film--and then weeps is perhaps the film's most tender moment.
I don't know if Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will appeal to everyone. When it ended, I sensed mixed vibes in the audience, and I heard a few people call it strange and confusing. And I can understand this reaction, even if it is thousands of miles away from the feeling of cinematic ecstasy I felt as the end credits began to roll. But I can say this: for those such as myself with a natural fondness for this type of fare, and certainly those who are established fans of le Carré, what Tomas Alfredson has wrought is pure heaven.
Though the cover art is a bit on the dull side (to match the film, the detractors say, before I punch them in their faces), Universal has otherwise put together a nice set for this modern spy classic's debut on home video. It includes a Blu-ray and a DVD. There is also a digital copy, but it is of the "UltraViolet" variety, which, I believe, is a cloud-based, restricted-rights streaming service which has angered people eager to place films on their iPods.
A protective slipcover is also included, which is always a plus.
The A/V presentation is spectacular. The film's grain-heavy, subdued, retro cinematography is perfectly preserved; there may not be much conventional, Avatar style beauty on display, but no one could argue this Blu-ray fails to convey the film's intended visual style. The same is true of the audio; not once is a terse, whispered threat lost in the mix, nor does Alberto Iglesias' Oscar nominated score ever sound less than rich, full, and robust.
While the special features are not Criterion level in-depth, Universal have not betrayed or underserved fans. A quiet, measured, but compelling and thoughtful audio commentary finds star Gary Oldman and director Tomas Alfredson discussing the film, its production, its themes, etc.
There is a very brief featurette which was, I'm sure, made to promote the film before its theatrical run rather than to sate those who love it and own the Blu-ray/DVD. Better are an hour's worth of interviews with the prinicipal talent, ranging from supporting players such as Colin Firth and Tom Hardy to John le Carré himself.
Six minutes of deleted scenes round out the bonus features. Nothing too amazing, but nothing banal or "Glad this was cut, ouch!" either. These brief moments will interest fans.