A complaint with many mainstream films these days is that they treat their audience as if they're toddlers, but last year's 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' is an interesting exception for deliberately making its plot too complex to understand on first viewing. That is, unless you've read the film's source, John le Carré's classic 1974 spy novel, and preferably also seen the equally classic BBC television series (1979).
The film itself has been reviewed quite exhaustively, so I'll resist another description of its gloomy '70s atmosphere of smoky back rooms and drizzly London with its pervasive feel of paranoia and betrayal, or of Gary Oldman's great sphynx-like performance as the sad and world-weary Smiley, whose eyes often remain hidden behind the reflection of his glasses. I'll also resist comparing the film with the BBC series, and Oldman with his formidable predecessor, Alec Guinness.
It is a tatty, nasty, shabby and stiflingly male world of beige and grey, seen through a dreary particulate haze - fag-ash and dandruff. The interiors and government offices are lit with a pallid, headachey glow. Every room looks like a morgue, and the corpses are walking around, filling out chits, wearing ill-fitting suits, having whispered conversations, giving and receiving bollockings and worrying about loyalty.
In two long blog pieces, film critic David Bordwell (who every film student knows as one half of Thompson and Bordwell's book 'Film Art: An Introduction') close-reads the storytelling strategies that 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' ('TTSP') uses to stay ahead of its audience. Highly recommended (but lots of spoilers): 'Tinker Tailor: A guide for the perplexed' and 'Tinker Tailor once more: Tradecraft'.
Put simply, most films go to great length to tell their story redundantly, with vital clues repeated at least once or twice, in dialogue and/or visually, to make sure its audience understands the causal links between what happens, as well as all the characters' motivations. However, as Bordwell notes, 'TTSP' "adheres to common conventions of modern storytelling but then subtracts one or two layers of redundancy."
Obviously, Le Carré's complicated labyrinthine plot had to be condensed and simplified quite a bit to fit into a feature-length film. But this doesn't explain the lack of redundancy and extreme ellipsis.
An interesting example is the introduction of the film's central location, the Circus in London - Le Carré's ironic code name for the British intelligence headquarters - and its key characters.
Another film would have typed out, "MI5 HQ," but we're left to infer that behind this façade the Secret Intelligence Service does its work. So the convention of the exterior establishing shot is respected but made a little less redundant.
Consider as well the introduction of the Circus's decision makers. Another film might have started with Smiley and followed him from his office into the briefing room. Instead, he's introduced as one of several men, then as an out-of-focus figure alongside Control. And even Control could have been more clearly identified. He signs his resignation with what could become an emblem of the film's stingy approach to storytelling.
Bordwell gives a number of other examples, all contributing to this "stingy" storytelling. The effect seems designed in part for the many fans of the book and the series, who would come to the film with extensive knowledge of the plot. Partly this approach also invites repeated viewing, and especially on the small screen where you can watch it nonlinearly. This is not uncommon for modern "clever" films like 'Memento' or 'The Usual Suspects'.
However, 'TTSP' seems to go a step further, by not just making the puzzle complex or subtle, but actively creating gaps and missing hints - like a mosaic that's complete enough to see the pattern but not entirely complete. In that sense 'TTSP' is by now best approached as one large intertextual work encompassing both the book, series and film. To complete the mosaic repeated viewing as well as knowledge of the book and/or series is necessary.
(A small but telling example of a missing piece of the mosiac is the painting that Smiley has on his wall. The film never tells us it is in fact painted by the character who turns out to be the mole.)
Ultimately, the film leaves you a bit mystified, like having witnessed but not quite followed a suspenseful chess match. Particularly, the motives of the various pieces remain inscrutable - even of Smiley himself.
The behavior of these spies is oddly ritualistic, caught up in their own web of deceit and suspicion, which they themselves can never fully see. Smiley's glasses play an important role as a symbol for both seeing and hiding, so that even when Smiley has identified the mole, the motivations for this agent's betrayal remain opaque. It is this disillusionment and frustration about the moral rot which was at the heart of Le Carré's novel that is reflected in the film adaptation's deliberate incompleteness.
Update: To add one more work to the intertextual 'TTSP' constellation, here's the film's screenplay (pdf). Much less mosaic in structure than the final film, it shows the extent to which its construction took place in the editing room.