Densely intricate, 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' is a highly sophisticated game of chess that's as challenging as it is demanding of its audience. Populated by some rather dubious gentlemen in the profession of deception, the sport requires the utmost skill, the proficiency for reading into the smallest details, and the talent for drawing in one's opponent. When lives and the security of your nation are at stake, this is a deadly game you don't want to leave in the hands of chance.
The same could be said of the film itself, where the slightest mistake or blunder on the part of the filmmakers could have been the production's ruin. Were it not for the expertise of Tomas Alfredson and his crew, this darkly intense espionage thriller would easily collapse under the weight of its labyrinthine plot. Thankfully, 'Tinker Tailor' is an absolutely brilliant display of drama, mystery, and suspense, one which regards its audience with intelligence. Like his twisted vampire romance 'Let the Right One In,' Alfredson shows complete control of the camera, with an awareness of viewer expectations. Although we can pretty much guess the identity of the double agent halfway into the film, we're continuously made to second guess ourselves. The real enjoyment is in watching the characters uncover the clues and figure the right moves for winning the match.
With gritty, disquieting photography by Hoyte van Hoytema, the Swedish director generates nerve-wracking tension out of silence and some of the most seemingly-benign conversations. As George Smiley (Gary Oldman) confronts Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) about his loyalty to the Circus, the name used when for referring to MI6, a plane lands in the distance and quickly approaches towards them while their exchange grows more uneasy. While checking the logbooks for a message sent that possibly names the mole hidden within the upper ranks of British intelligence, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) is pulled aside and asked about Rick Tarr (Tom Hardy), a missing agent believed to have defected. In the enclosed room with hideously orange, soundproof pads on the wall, the air thickens with apprehension as Alleline (Toby Jones), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) and Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) question and stare at Guillam. It is scenes such as these and many more, while on the hunt for a mole, which make for a satisfyingly tense, almost Hitchcockian motion picture.
The narrative, based on the novel of the same name by John Le Carré, is so complex and layered that practically every line of dialogue holds a great deal of weight and importance. Background information about the group of men is provided in flashback sequences, which admittedly are somewhat difficult to follow. Nevertheless, it's terrifically fascinating, and Alfredson does admirably in keeping things focused and allowing the story to methodically unfold. Like its source material, 'Tinker Tailor' creates a more realistic impression of the intelligence-gathering community, a response to the glamorized visions of Ian Flemming's James Bond and other fiction in the same ilk. Techniques for collecting information isn't all guns, excitement and women. And then there's the toll such secrecy, betrayal, and endless uncertainty, even amongst friends, puts on the human spirit and one's mental health.
This is the aspect of the film that truly surprises, heightening the story's drama and convincing me that I'm watching great cinema. Particularly in the character of George Smiley, the life of an intelligence officer is an extraordinarily lonely existence and seems to come at a great cost, deeply affecting their personal lives and on how decisions are made. Oldman gives the performance of his career as the admirable agent who juggles to keep his career separate from his home life, only to discover that there's often little he can do. He's a man of few words with even fewer adjectives, which almost always make him sound cold and indifferent but with an unmistakable intent. The character has the stoic presence of a man always thinking and calculating his next move, and who appears to carry the burden of his experience on his face. His friendly chat with Guillam about Smiley's archnemesis Karla is a touching moment revealing how spy work has affected him.
Moreover, the story includes other areas of intrigue, such as the change in the field of espionage, from the long-established to the young and contemporary. Set at the height of the Cold War, Smiley and his superior, Control (John Hurt), represent the quasi-traditional methods of intelligence-gathering, as if playing a high-risk game that requires a great deal of smarts. The new generation embodied by Alleline, Haydon and Bland appear more intent on advancing their personal careers and moving up in the ranks, not realizing the sort of danger they welcome at their footstep or of the reckless gamble they take when forgetting to not trust anyone. It adds another layer to already dense, intelligently-crafted spy thriller that plays out much like a chess game, where luring the king to let his guard down proves to be the best strategy for winning the match.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal Studios Home Entertainment brings 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack. Sitting comfortably on opposing panels inside a blue eco-vortex case, the first is a Region Free, BD50 disc while the second is a DVD-9 copy of the film. The package also includes a glossy cardboard slipcover and a code for an UltraViolet digital copy. At startup, the disc went straight to main menu with full-motion clips and music in the background.
'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' debuts with a top-notch AVC-encoded transfer (2.35:1), displaying the stylized photography of Hoyte van Hoytema beautifully. Contrast is intentionally on the low end of the grayscale, creating a bleak and dour atmosphere that perfectly matches the subject matter. What's more, the cinematography allows for plenty of visibility and clarity in the background. Black levels are true and rich for most of the runtime, giving the image a good deal of depth.
The video also shows a thin veil of grain that's stable and consistent, coming off a bit thick in a couple of nighttime scenes indoors where blacks tend to suffer somewhat. Shadow details, however, remain perceptible, except for those few moments when we're not meant to see into the darkness. The color palette has been drained to keep with the story's dreary nature, although reds and greens offer some glimmers of life. The high-def transfer, on the whole, is terrifically sharp and well-defined, exposing every strand of hair on an actor's head and every thread in their outfits. It's not entirely perfect and facial complexions may look a tad sickly and weary, but texture and pores around faces and on buildings are plainly visible, especially in close-ups, making this an excellent presentation.
The real surprise in this Blu-ray release comes from the fantastically immersive DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Rear activity is constantly being employed for what are normally the most mundane things, such as the reflection of a car driving across a field in the distance. We can actually hear it drive behind us from right to the left, matching it exactly to what we see on screen. Other times, it's the frantic chatter of people in the office, doors opening and closing or birds chirping in the neighborhood which extends the soundfield and generates a satisfying ambience. Alberto Iglesias's stylized musical score also bleeds into surrounds fluidly and pulling viewers into the suspense and mystery.
Being a character-driven film, dialogue is precise and cleanly delivered in the center of the screen. Movement across the soundstage is flawless, creating an entertainingly active image that feels spacious and is very engaging. Although the design doesn't offer lots of action which push the higher frequencies, the mid-range is clean and even nonetheless, providing listeners with an enjoyable and detailed soundscape. Low bass is surprisingly punchy when called upon, but mostly reserved for adding a pleasing depth to the music.
The lossless mix for this brilliant espionage thriller makes for a standout listen.
Unable to find further information, supplements are assumed to be the same as those found on the day-and-date DVD release.
From the director of 'Let the Right One In,' Tomas Alfredson delivers a brilliant, densely intricate espionage thriller which regards its audience with intelligence. Starring Gary Oldman as the stoic, calculating George Smiley, 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' is a marvelous adaptation of John Le Carré's classic novel about a mole within the high ranks of British Intelligence during the height of the Cold War. The Blu-ray arrives with an excellent audio and video presentation, and although supplements don't seem like much, the overall package still makes for a terrific debut and comes recommended.