This is the sort of film that thaws over time, which takes a while to find any kind of emotional or humane core. That’s not a disparagement against the film, it is just something you have to accept about the film and it’s plotting.
It is actually a function of the narrative; the film’s main protagonist is largely dispassionate about the plot himself largely due to the circumstances he finds himself. George Smiley is a man who has been removed from his position and is just settling into forced retirement when he is called upon to lead an investigation into his former colleagues in the British Intelligence Agency. Smiley is a frosty kind of character, analytical and shutdown, and the plotting largely follows this characterisation with the first act told in very precise, very detailed, and emotionally fleeting terms.
It’s the sort of opening that makes you pore over the entire frame and every bit of dialogue because every scene is loaded with information. Even divorced from the central mystery the narrative of Smiley dredging up the past and coming to terms with a new vanguard of colleagues he can’t connect with is really well done and Oldman sells it completely and effortlessly. It’s kind of amazing how old and tired Oldman comes across in this film, especially considering the youth and vigour in both his Commissioner Gordon and Sirius Black. But whilst Oldman plays Smiley as old he definitely doesn’t play Smiley as infirm, in fact there’s a quiet energy and intensity to Smiley which is kind of amazing the few times that Oldman reveals it. The supporting cast are all absolute aces as well despite their limited screen time. In fact out of a cast that includes Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Gary Oldman, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Ciaran Hinds it’s the three younger actors (Hardy, Strong and Cumberbatch) who flesh out their characters the most.
Hardy is great as a mercenary intelligence agent who has been on the run for an almost a year after a botched operation, bringing a world weary edge and agitated intensity to the film. Strong has limited screen time but quickly constructs a great, forlorn, presence. Benedict Cumberbatch however is the real standout. Whilst he isn’t a protagonist he gets a lion’s share of screen time and some of the real honestly emotional moments of the film. He’s also something of an audience identification figure as Smiley is a little too removed and opaque for us to really get into his mind and Cumberbatch makes his few suspense scenes work brilliantly. What makes Cumberbatch work is that he’s a very human figure in the film surrounded by characters who trade in icy indifference, because of this his concern for his own well-being becomes an almost character trait.
Tomas Alfredson, aside from a scene involving a gull which reminded me a little of the CGI cats from his earlier effort LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, directs the film with an amazing sense of aplomb. Whilst there’s nothing particularly flashy about his direction his longer cuts, sense of rhythm, and dispassionate depiction of the fleeting moments of violence, really pulls the whole thing together. At times the frame almost feels a little claustrophobically tight, but his use of composition and just the general pacing of his editing and periods between cuts really helps to give a studious feel to the film. It’s the sort of film where its denouement feels oddly muted largely because Alfredson is more interested in the construction of a trap than the springing of a trap and it just feels to maintain the adult, intelligent, feel of the whole enterprise. It also means that the moments of genuine emotional revelation actually feel earned and actually feel powerful for it, because the film is so frosty and intellectual for the majority of its running time the moments when it breaks to examine the actual impact it is having on its characters are kind of astounding.