In the midst of the Cold War, the head of MI6, Control (John Hurt), becomes aware of a mole within his organization. The operation to unearth the spy goes terribly wrong, however, and Control is forced to resign along with George Smiley (Oldman), a member of “The Circus” (MI6’s inner circle) and Control’s man through and through. A year later, Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy), a field agent who was previously under Control’s authority, comes out of hiding and brings with him the renewed belief that one of the members of The Circus is indeed a traitor. With nowhere else to turn, Smiley is brought on board to investigate the claims and root out the mole. As he delves into the work of The Circus and a particular operation known as Witchcraft, Smiley finds himself caught up in an increasingly complex web of lies and cover-ups that threaten to bring the world to the brink of yet another war.
TTSS is the anti-Bourne, the anti-Bauer, and certainly the anti-Bond. I thoroughly enjoy those characters and their respective franchises but this is an entirely different sort of spy film. You could almost believe that TTSS is based on a true story. It is a real espionage thriller and one that stands up against the best of the genre. This is the definition of a slow burn with a narrative that moves at a snail’s pace. But that isn’t to say that it is boring or that it lacks in drama. While there are no fiery explosions, no nuclear threats, and very few shootings, it is still taut and riveting, the type of film that has you on the edge of your seat without you even realizing it. TTSS builds its tension through its masterful storytelling that mixes in timely flashbacks while constantly moving the narrative forward. This is a layered, deep, and complicated film but director Tomas Alfredson and his team of writers never make a misstep or allow the film to become overly convoluted. This is a thinking man’s spy thriller, a film for adults, but it isn’t so complex that you can’t follow along, a fact that I truly appreciate. Every scene and every line of dialogue is carefully crafted and nothing goes to waste, the mark of a great film. In essence, this is really about as good as it gets from a storytelling standpoint.
For all the good of the story, however, TTSS would fail without a killer cast. Fortunately, Alfredson assembled an impeccable and diverse group of actors who fit their characters beautifully. You know what you’re getting from reliable veterans like Oldman, Hurt, and Firth (I’m not sure when exactly Firth went from a ho-hum likeable guy in romantic comedies to a tour de force in meaningful films like this but I dig the change) but Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch provide a bit of youthful exuberance to balance out the reserved nature of the older stars. Cumberbatch in particular is a spectacular addition. His character, Peter Guillam, is sort of the audience’s representative, as his sense of wide-eyed bewilderment at the grimy reality of espionage adds yet another element to the mix at work within TTSS. Every member of the cast comes through with flying colors, each delivering a powerful performance.
But at the end of the day, this is Oldman’s show and he makes the absolute most of it. Smiley basically doesn’t speak for the first 20 minutes of the film and even after that his words are limited, calculated. And yet the entire time, Oldman commands attention. He is quietly calm in all situations and gives the impression that you had better listen closely to everything he says. So much information is conveyed without words and so much of the film’s success depends on Smiley’s ability to create a real presence. Even when he doesn’t have the answer to the riddle set before him, Smiley displays a keen understanding of the world he is working within and for me, that sense of, “this guy knows what he’s doing” only adds to Oldman’s on-screen power. It’s not just that Smiley knows what needs to be done; it’s that he knows what the cost will be to get it done. This is an incredibly challenging and understated role and one that I think a number of very talented actors would struggle with. Instead, Oldman revels in the difficulty, giving a flawless performance. Deliberating over Oldman’s best role is like picking which of Michael Jordan’s six championships is his best (it’s the third one, by the way) but Oldman’s work in TTSS should be held up as a work of art, a masterful portrayal that should not be overlooked in February.