Cast: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones ~ Writer: Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan ~ Director: Tomas Alfredson
Reviewer: Jehan Ranasinghe (aka @Maustallica)
The Low-Down: Detached, clinical and brooding, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy makes full use of the embarrassing wealth of talent at its disposal to deliver an absorbing, intelligent and admirably restrained espionage thriller.
What’s it About?: During the height of the Cold War, British intelligence veteran George Smiley (Gary Oldman) finds himself shunted out of MI6 after his mentor Control (John Hurt) – suspecting that a Soviet mole has infiltrated the organisation – spearheads a disastrous mission in Budapest. However, Smiley’s retirement ends abruptly when overseas agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) returns to the UK with information: the mole is real, and is operating undercover at the very highest level. It falls to Smiley to investigate and flush out the enemy hiding right under MI6’s nose…
The Story: It’s tempting when regarding a film such as Tinker Tailor Solider Spy to kid yourself that what it accomplishes is easy, or that it’s something you can in some way take for granted. It is, after all, a project which seemed to have everything going for it from the very start; a stellar cast, an acclaimed director and the template of one of Britain’s best-known spy thrillers to work from. Surely all that needs doing from there is to show up on set, flick the cameras on and let the magic happen; job’s a good ‘un, right?
Well, no. Film history is littered with the corpses of would-be prestige pictures – Steven Zaillian’s All the King’s Men and Joe Wright’s The Soloist spring to mind in recent years – which seemed starred for fame and acclaim due to the their lavishly-assembled personnel, only to underwhelm and disappoint when finally arriving in cinemas. So we must give dues, then, to director Tomas Alfredson and his collaborators on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a work that showcases all-star filmmaking at its very best: an overflowing array of hugely talented individuals coming together for a genuine team effort, each willing to share responsibility for delivering a film of near-undeniable quality and class, one that lives up to its pedigree with room to spare.
Given the nature of that pedigree, that’s no mean feat. As noted, the 1974 novel is an established classic of its genre, calling on author John le Carré’s real-life secret service experience to create a tense and brooding potboiler; more pressure still is added by enduring memories of the equally iconic 1979 BBC television adaptation, which saw Sir Alec Guinness turn George Smiley into one of the most closely-associated roles of his illustrious career. Both the book and TV series have the key advantage over the film of not only getting there first, but also having far more time and leeway to explore the languorous intricacies of this most low-octane of spy stories, in which espionage is carried out via mumbled, shifty conversations involving dour men with briefcases, rather than lantern-jawed beefcakes in tuxedos.
As it transpires, the 2011 version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy shows very few signs of intimidation about the presumably pitfall-laden adaptation process, aggressively trimming material that covered almost seven hours on TV into a disciplined 127 minutes. What results is a film that moves at a brisk, occasionally disorienting pace through methodical exposition, bubbling tension and undercurrents of character drama. Action junkies will find nothing to sate them here; throughout, the film maintains a languid, stifled atmosphere, with little in the way of flashpoints or adrenaline spikes. But that isn’t to say there’s nothing going on; on the contrary, it’s incredibly fleet of foot in story terms, hopping between different perspectives and frequent flashbacks as it diligently assembles the pieces of le Carré’s narrative puzzle. A side effect of this is that the audience sometimes has to move faster than they might anticipate in order to keep up, but there’s very little here that feels overly unclear, even without in-depth knowledge of the material.
Besides, those who do feel lost during this journey will at least have some high-calibre travelling companions to smooth things over. Again, the pedigree of this cast will lead some to take the quality on offer for granted, but it’s still worth giving credit to the assembled talent for performing so unselfishly in low-key roles that are largely free of fireworks. Typically alpha-male presences like Mark Strong and Tom Hardy show they’re prepared to work hard with slightly more passive and introspective characters; Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch add splashes of rakish colour; Toby Jones and Ciaran Hinds, meanwhile, inject much-needed presence into characters who otherwise would have come perilously close to being underwritten, considering their key roles in the overall mystery.
Fittingly, however, it’s the top-billed names from in front of and behind the camera that prove to be Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s greatest assets. As Smiley, Gary Oldman clearly recognises that he’s been handed a potential milestone role in his career, just as it was for Guinness; as a result, it’s hard to recall him ever being better. Oldman’s Smiley is a performance that creeps up on you, a seemingly passive, soft-spoken and unexplosive presence that gradually radiates more power as the film progresses. Observing events quietly through unfashionable bifocals, Oldman slowly seizes control of the film from his illustrious co-stars with piercing gazes and measured delivery, with Smiley’s taciturn single-mindedness bringing to mind some kind of investigative Terminator.
Aiding and abetting Oldman is the work of Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, the film’s other main weapon and the secret ingredient in what could have been a rather conventional stew. Making his English-language debut, there was no guarantee that the Let the Right One In helmer’s talents would translate; happily, he acquits himself with distinction, with his drained yet striking palette, ice-cold atmospherics and clinical sense of detachment proving vital in interweaving Smiley’s character with that of his world. Alfredson’s Cold War-era London is a muted and paranoid environment, with the sense of unease only increasing as the threads of le Carré’s story come together and are pulled taut.
In fact, if there’s one overriding disappointment about the film, it’s that this admirable slow-burn tension-building never really gets the payoff it deserves. This is very much a film that’s much more about the journey and the process than the final destination, and there’s plenty to be said for that; still, when Smiley’s carefully laid trap finally closes on the villain, it’s with a gentle creak rather than the sharp snap one might expect, leading to an inescapable sense of slight anticlimax. That’s not to accuse the film of needing anything so crass and sensationalist as a last-minute rug-pull or “gotcha!” moment, but it’s hard to imagine many audience members feeling much sense of surprise at the end of this mystery, even ones who haven’t anticipated the outcome.
Despite this, it seems churlish to suggest that many people are likely to exit Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with feelings of disappointment. Naturally, personal taste and mileage will vary with a genre piece of this kind, but it’s hard to recall another major film released this year with such an indisputable level of craftsmanship, skill, intelligence and sheer quality. With any justice, this film should solidify Alfredson’s place as one of the hottest directorial prospects of the moment and could potentially snare Oldman his first Oscar nomination; indeed, with numerous other le Carré books to work with, it may also herald the start of a potentially exciting new franchise. And if none of that comes to pass, then we’ll at least have this smart, clinical and exceptionally adult thriller as consolation.
The Verdict: Brilliantly constructed, sharp as a tack and featuring a magnetic central performance, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a film that’s every bit the sum of its parts. And when the parts are this good, that’s more than enough to qualify as a major triumph.