Dir. Tomas Andersen
If you want to catch the real difference between this epic British adaptation of John LeCarré's gripping international espionage drama, and what schlock typically passes for 'spy thriller' in this country look no further than the toast. Twice within the first fifteen minutes of Tomas Andersen's well-appointed cat-and-mouse game, characters munch very notably on the most humble of British breakfast appointments. It's not much to look at, but the dry, rasping tone of the stuff heavily implies the slick fatuousness of its consumers. It's a small detail to be sure, but, in keeping with a film composed largely of just such details, it speaks volumes to the care and precision with which this film was conceived.
This largesse also goes far beyond the breakfast table with a stunning cast of British thespians -- including Gary Oldham, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, and others -- chosen to populate one of LeCarré's most densely satisfying works. The plot is heavy and strong as a glass of 80-year-old scotch. We're in the early '70s in Cold War London, with British intelligence playing a constant game of switcheroo with the Soviets, determining spies, torturing them for any intel they might provide and then quickly returning them back to the enemy side in exchange for the return of their own counterparts. Following a power play by Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), the former head of a supremely powerful counter-intelligence unit, Control (John Hurt) and his right-hand man, George Smiley (Oldham), are forced into retirement, but not before confronting continued rumors of having a mole in the top of their former organization. In order to ferret out the suspect, Smiley is brought back into the fold with a small team lead by Peter Guillam (Cumberbatch) and given a green light to do whatever necessary to ID the perpetrator, which leads to elaborate gamesmanship on all fronts.
Rich with period detail -- from the reliance on teletypes for the transmission of coded messages to Smiley's preferred brand of breath mint, and all amidst the ever-swirling smoky haze of agents' cigarettes and dim office track lighting -- Andersen's film does justice to LeCarré's elegantly refined prose. Despite its subject matter, the film is anything but an action picture -- even the climax is bloodless and primarily cordial -- but that doesn't for a second suggest that its turgid. It avoids standard action set pieces and replaces them with a keenly observant, paranoid atmosphere that generates more than enough disquiet and trepidation to keep you intrigued. It is also decidedly not dumbed down, to the point where, if you are unfamiliar with the novel, you might find yourself swimming in a brisk sea of confusion, especially in the film's first half-hour, where the myriad of characters are spread out before you like an assortment of misplaced puzzle pieces.
But a good deal of the joy behind these kinds of films is derived precisely at the moment all these pieces finally coalesce into satisfying whole. For a film about counter intelligence and high-stakes political poker, there is a very low body count, but that doesn't mean there isn't a lot of blood spilled by both sides before it's over.