Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Screenplay by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan
Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciarán Hinds
How long is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy? 127 minutes.
What is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy rated? R for violence, some sexuality/nudity and language.
A Sharp Adaptation of le Carré’s Thriller
The next time you sit down at an office meeting, a card game, or a family dinner, look around the table and try to guess which of the familiar faces you see actually wants to betray and destroy you. It’s a fun game, and a good preparatory exercise for Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, based on John le Carré’s popular novel of the same name. The movie may test your patience, but expect to have that patience rewarded with an immersive and engrossing brainteaser of a film.
Gary Oldman has assumed the mantle of Sir Alec Guinness, consummate English character actor, so gradually that it comes as a delightful surprise to see him not only reprising one of the late Guinness’s notable roles, but channeling him with eerie precision. It is easy to forget how seldom Oldman, scarcely recognizable from role to role, has been asked to play a good old proper Englishman. As George Smiley, le Carré’s master spy of a bygone generation, he is once again at the top of his game. In fairness, the same can be said of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s entire cast. The film features a powerhouse ensemble of British and Irish character players. Say hello to Colin Firth, John Hurt (Alien, The Elephant Man, The Proposition), Toby Jones (Infamous, The Mist, Captain America), Mark Strong (Kick-Ass, Sherlock Holmes), Benedict Cumberbatch (TV’s Sherlock), Ciarán Hinds (There Will Be Blood), and hip young gunslinger Tom Hardy.
This entire cast acted their guts out, and I haven’t even mentioned the second-tier supporters. Tom Hardy deserves special mention because he gets to express the most depth and angst. He’s become quite the chameleon himself, from Star Trek Nemesis to roles in Bronson, Inception, Warrior, and many more. Don’t forget — he’ll be playing Bane opposite Batman this summer. As Ricki Tarr, rogue spy and instigating factor of Tinker Tailor, he gets a rare chance to show his full unbloodied face and his more conventionally human aspects onscreen.
Enough about the cast. What’s it all about? It is the 1970s, and there is a Russian double agent at the highest level of British intelligence, known as “The Circus.” At least, we think there is, but the traitor’s high position in the only organization that can expose him makes matters rather difficult. George Smiley (Oldman), former right-hand man of late intelligence chief Control (Hurt), gets called out of retirement by a concerned government secretary in order to probe the mystery with his considerable expertise. We learn that Smiley’s “retirement” came in the wake of a scandal in which Control disgraced himself and his entire staff with an unsuccessful attempt to sniff out the mole under his nose. Nonetheless, the mission’s failure was confirmation enough that there really is a traitor feeding Western secrets to Moscow’s top spy, known only as “Karla.” Smiley carefully chooses his allies and takes up the hunt for Karla’s mole, adopting Control’s nursery-rhyme code for the various suspects, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Poor Man, Beggar Man.”
Smiley is the ultimate spy, precisely because he is everything James Bond is not. An inconspicuous middle-aged man can snoop far more effectively, even at high levels of government, without people putting tarantulas in his room or gunning his women down. Come to think of it, did Bond ever have a convincing cover story, or was he simply posing as a career baccarat hustler? Le Carré, himself a veteran of British Intelligence, paints a very credible picture of what Cold War espionage must really have been like. It consists principally of quiet men in tasteful suits having very secret meetings, heavily swathed in shadow and cigarette smoke.
There are a few little problems that keep Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy from being flawless, on the level of something like Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives Of Others). For one thing, this film relies on viewers not to miss a single word of dialogue and to grasp the full import of each line. Even then, the story is not the easiest to follow, and those who have read le Carré’s novel prior to seeing the film have a decided advantage over the rest of the audience. It is a superb adaptation to be sure, but that factor prevents it from being a perfect one.
We almost never see people going places. We only see them arriving places, so you’d better have been listening thirty seconds ago when they said where they would be going. At first this pattern seems disorienting, but ultimately it serves the overall sense of mystery. Most of the actual “spy stuff” that goes on is hidden even from the audience, and hinted at later in passing. Every bit of explanation you need to follow this movie is in the script, but just barely. In other words, don’t take a restroom break.
The only way to make the story less convoluted would have been to take it at an even slower pace, but this movie is too full of shadows and brooding to run for a third hour and still hold an audience’s attention. The screenwriters did a good job of trimming the story down. Changes from the source novel were all practical shortcuts, not alterations to the story’s tone or basic facts. Some of the suspenseful moments could have been drawn out just a few seconds longer, but the consistency of pace is hard to fault.
Aside from the cast, the movies’ greatest strength lies in its sense of style. From the film stock to the costumes to the wallpaper on set, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is as authentic a period piece as you might wish to see. It recalls Ti West’s 2009 horror film The House Of The Devil, which genuinely looks thirty years older than it is. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy boasts that level of seamless period atmosphere, and it’s not all washed-out colors and natty fashion sense. The soundtrack is equally excellent, with a mournfully hip and jazzy score coupled with some aptly chosen pop standards.
This is the second effort by Swedish director Tomas Alfredson that most English-speaking audiences will have seen, following his much-lauded adaptation of the vampire novel Låt Den Rätte Komma In. On the slippery slope of personal taste, I prefer the Hammer studio’s version of the book, Let Me In, but Alfredson’s film did come first and is extremely good. Here, Alfredson tackles a story nearly devoid of blood and guts, investing it with similar moodiness and daring to take his sweet time. The result may not grip your heart and squeeze like a typical spy thriller, but Alfredson, like George Smiley, has a lot more on his mind.