"Late in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Tomas Alfredson's impeccably crafted adaptation of John Le Carré's classic spy novel, a British agent that was working as a mole for the Soviets offers an explanation for his actions," begins Andrew Schenker in Slant. "'It was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one,' he says of his defection. 'The West has become so ugly.' It's tempting to ascribe the same motives to Alfredson's directorial choices. After all, he's gone to great lengths to give his film an eye-popping visual signature, crafting crisp, exacting images out of a perfectly tuned palette of sickly yellows, browns, and toned-down blues, while muting those elements (character, action) that traditionally distinguish the spy thriller. But a more accurate way of evaluating the film's achievement would be to say that for Alfredson the moral is contained in the aesthetic, his visual scheme no mere eye candy, but perfectly expressive of both the very proper outward behaviors of the characters (the precision of the images) and the sickening moral rot that sat at the heart of the British Secret Intelligence Service during the Cold War era (the color choices)."
"George Smiley, Le Carré's enduring gift to the literature of espionage, is, of course, the anti-Bond," writes James Parker in the Atlantic. "Across the sequence of novels in which he appears, peripherally or centrally, this secret servant of Her Majesty (like Bond, he works for British Intelligence, known in Le Carré world as 'the Circus') is discreet to the point of self-erasure. Bureaucratically dowdy, rarely spotted in the field, a dull fucker by both instinct and training, Smiley drops no one-liners, romances no tarot-card readers, roars no speedboats through the Bayou. Bond has his ultraviolence and his irresistibility, his famous 'comma of black hair'; Smiley has his glasses, his habit of cleaning them with the fat end of his tie, and not much else."
"[S]o what is the appeal?" asks Anthony Lane in the New Yorker. "One answer came in 1979, when the BBC screened a seven-part adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, directed by John Irvin… I was not the only one chained to the couch by the TV series, when it originally aired. Millions watched and waited, over six weeks, for the mole to be unearthed…. Here's the strangest thing: the television series, lasting more than five and a quarter hours, was bovine of pace, often ugly to behold, and content to meander along byways that petered out into open country or led inexorably to dead ends, yet I was tensed and transfixed by every minute, like a worshipper at a familiar Mass whose mystery will never abate. The new version, by comparison, feels purposeful, unbaffled, artfully composed, and lit, amazingly, with hints of jocularity…. But something in the drama has been dulled, and I was almost bored."
"If Smiley's secret agent is the anti-Bond, the retro Tinker, Tailor is a sort of diminished, melancholy Brazil — at times, drily satiric." J Hoberman in the Voice: "The latest Tinker, Tailor is, in some ways, more explicit regarding various characters' sexual proclivities than was the miniseries. It's also more concise, but what's lost is George's pathos. [Gary] Oldman's Smiley is less agonized nerd than Asperger brainiac; as successful as Alfredson is in evoking the period, it's difficult these days to feature a movie hero who is not unequivocally victorious and perhaps even tougher, 22 years after Cold War victory, to evoke the psychology of that twilight struggle."
"Peter Straughan's script presents the backdrop of a country on its economic knees and swiftly decorticates the petty funding problems of the Circus and its cripplingly obsessive need to impress its American cousins in the CIA," writes Julien Allen in Reverse Shot. "It also improves our understanding of the characters' frustration by its fixation on sex…. Barely ten minutes go by without someone having, talking about, emerging from, watching, or wishing they could have some sort of coitus. This crafty conceit conjures a sense of the sheer impotence of covert power; of men who have agreed to shut themselves away from the outside world and are forbidden the liberating pleasures of genuine companionship… Working Title's track record is marked by a strategic deployment of foreign directors to explore landmarks in English culture (Ang Lee for Sense and Sensibility, Shekhar Kapur for Elizabeth) and so it is here with Swedish director Alfredson, who has concentrated and sharpened his modus operandi for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Amidst the Kieslowskian visuals and pace of Let the Right One In, it was easy to overlook Alfredson's principal predilection, which is for demonstrative set pieces. A large part of the success of Let the Right One In was in the blending of highly naturalistic lighting, acting and production design with spectacular metaphysical outbursts (the tunnel attack, the spontaneous combustion, the final majestic ballet of death in the municipal pool) and here again, the film is both still and brutal, though the naturalism of Let the Right One In has been replaced by a grimy but seductive seventies period patina."
In Time Out New York, Keith Uhlich warns that "it's likely you'll feel a bit lost on first view: Characters spout insider-espionage jargon (Karla, Witchcraft, Scalphunters) with world-weary casualness, and flashbacks to seemingly inscrutable events are prevalent. Here's all you need to know: There's a Soviet operative in the British secret service, and forcibly retired MI6 man George Smiley (Oldman, perfection) has to find out who it is."
Nicolas Rapold for the L: "Oldman's study in coiled repression is matched by reserved storytelling that largely dispenses with narrative signposts, letting us sink into an enveloping but not titillating paranoia — a vault of standing personal and national mysteries and vendettas. No one in the cast (John Hurt, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, David Dencik) stands out for long, but far from feeling like a waste, the rotation reinforces the sense of stars in a closed world (where reputation cuts both ways)."
"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the intellectual action flick of your dreams," writes James Rocchi for Box Office.
IndieWIRE's Eric Kohn talks Tinker and Young Adult with Scott Foundas and Stephanie Zacharek. R Kurt Osenlund interviews the cast and crew for Slant. Steven Zeitchik interviews Alfredson for the Los Angeles Times. Interviews with Gary Oldman: Jason Guerrasio (Filmmaker), Aaron Hillis (Playlist), Dave Itzkoff (NYT, where he gets him talking about the making of Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula), Tasha Robinson (AV Club), Kristopher Tapley (In Contention) and Benjamin Wallace (New York).
Updates, 12/8: "Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan compress Le Carré's labyrinthine plot, but don't simplify it," writes Keith Phipps at the AV Club. "Its dealings and double-dealings will probably be better understood on a second viewing, but it only takes one to appreciate Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as a film."
Slate's Dana Stevens: "It's murky almost to the point of impenetrability, rife with non sequiturs too random even to qualify as red herrings. But Alfredson creates a world that's so gloomily atmospheric — not just the beautifully chosen sets and locations, but the smoky quality of the air and the echo of staticky radios in musty rooms — that not quite knowing what's going on starts to seem like part of the point."
More from Michael Nordine (Hammer to Nail) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 9.5/10).
Updates, 12/9: The first item of note today has to be a ringing endorsement from none other than Le Carré himself: "Once in a lifetime, if a novelist is very lucky, he gets a movie made of one of his books that has its own life and truth. This is the achievement of Tomas Alfredson and his team."
Also in Salon, Andrew O'Hehir: "For many viewers, it may simply be an exotic period drama that's half nostalgia and half horror-show, recalling the age when the Soviet Union was widely seen as a many-tentacled but obscure monstrosity, working behind the scenes to squeeze the life out of Western democracy. But even though communism per se is long dead (and mourned only by zealots), the movie may be hitting at a moment when the capitalist world faces a crisis of self-doubt every bit as agonizing as that of the 70s."
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky here in the Notebook: "Like Alfredson's Let the Right One In, Tinker, Tailor is a smart-but-hardly-heady genre piece which picks a handful of influences and boils them down to into pliable notions that can then be used to form a style; as far as utterly derivative filmmaking goes, it's pretty damn good. Alfredson's two major points-of-reference in Tinker, Tailor appear to be the later films of Jean-Pierre Melville (who seemed to be the dominant influence the first time I saw the film, projected) and the current work of David Fincher (whose influence seemed to dominate my second viewing, from DVD)."
"Far more lively, cruel, sexy, subtle, and poignant than the television version, TTSS opened a few months ago in Britain and scored at the box office," notes Amy Taubin, writing for Artforum. "Chalk it up to 70s déjà vu, because even more than the novel and the TV series, the movie is the antithesis of the blockbuster Bond and Bourne spy sagas. Not that TTSS lacks suspense; indeed its narrative structure — many small slow burns within a single edge-of-your seat arc — is worthy of Hitchcock at his best."
Oldman's is "a fascinatingly gripping performance," writes the NYT's Manohla Dargis, one "that doesn't so much command the screen, dominating it with shouts and displays of obvious technique, as take it over incrementally, an occupation that echoes Smiley's steady incursion into the mole's lair. Again and again, as he does with the other watchers, Mr Alfredson places Smiley on one side of a window, looking out at a world that he both belongs to and remains very much outside of. There's a sense throughout that Smiley, preoccupied with thoughts of his errant, faithless wife, Ann (Katrina Vasilieva, never viewed in full), doesn't just live in a place apart but also in a kind of dream."
Writing for NPR, Ella Taylor notes that "there's nothing self-consciously post-modern about Tinker, Tailor. Alfredson offers no concessions to hindsight, no lessons for today. Instead, he's kept faith with Le Carré's bleak, romantically elegiac vision of a moment in 20th century history at once glorious and doomed. For the obsessives in this arcane, self-perpetuating, self-defeating world, duty (or its dereliction) comes first, and a Christmas office party means Santa in a Lenin mask and the singing of a Russian anthem."
"This is a new masterpiece," declares Paul Mazursky in Vanity Fair.
Matt Singer talks with Alfredson for IFC, Jen Yamato with Oldman for Movieline.
Updates, 12/11: Tom Shone: "The film is like a modernist deconstruction of a much more plodding, longer version of the same film, which exists somewhere — in Alfredson's head, or buried somewhere behind Oldman's bifocals — but which you can only discern glimpses of, through the nooks, crannies and ellipses of the film you happen to be watching."
"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is so elegant, deliberate and smart that it's a shocker it got made," adds Mary Pols in Time.