Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Review

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by Casimir Harlow Sep 30, 2011 at 2:00 PM

  • Movies review

    Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Review

    When I was younger, all I associated with spies were guns, girls and gadgets, not necessarily in that order. I’m sure many of us had James Bond to thank for that, Ian Fleming’s superspy, who was known for jet-setting across the globe to visit exotic locales and deliver his own brand of wry humour to caricature wannabe-despots, before dispatching all of their henchmen with a "judo chop" to the neck, and suavely stealing away with their put-upon and more-scantily-clad-than-Leia girlfriends, as the massive evil lair self-destructs in the background. Of course I wanted to be a spy. Who wouldn’t? But Ian Fleming’s globally renowned superspy did not start his life as such a ludicrously over-the-top phenomenon. No, in fact Fleming wrote him semi-autobiographically to be a grizzled, rough-around-the-edges, chain-smoking, alcoholic. As I grew older, Bond was still of great interest to me – particularly his changing faces, each decade a new actor taking on the mantle – but his exploits became increasingly frivolous (that is, until the very recent Daniel Craig reboot saw him, comparatively, brought back to earth with a suitably realistic bang), and my interests started to expand to include alternative, perhaps more true-to-life spies. Len Deighton had written a series of novels about his own spy, Harry Palmer, who was perhaps the true antithesis of Bond: a myopic, cockney, working-class hero whose exploits normally involved more paperwork than they were worth. The subsequent adaptations – starring Michael Caine (including The Ipcress File) – were a breath of fresh air to some; they were far closer to the reality of what spies were all about. Another writer, real-life MI-6 officer David Cornwell, also crafted his own alternative to Bond at around the same time. Cornwell wrote under a pseudonym whilst he was still employed by Her Majesty – John Le Carre – and he created the world of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the perspicacious spymaster George Smiley.

    “There's a mole, right at the top of the Circus. And he's been there for years.”

    Taking us back to the 1970s, we find ourselves at the height of the Cold War, with agents and double-agents working for both sides. The highest echelon of the British Secret Intelligence Services, known as The Circus, is run by Control, who has a group of five high-clearance officers working beneath him. Unfortunately, he suspects one of them of being a mole – secretly disseminating intelligence information to the Russian equivalent intelligence services, as run by the elusive “Karla”. But after one of his field operatives, Jim Prideaux, is shot in the midst of a botched operation to find the mole, Control is forced out of The Circus, along with his right-hand man, British Intelligence Officer George Smiley. A year passes, and when one of the new heads of The Circus realises that there may have been some truth to the old theory about the mole, he reaches out to Smiley to conduct an undercover operation into the remaining members of The Circus, and find out which one of them is working for the Russians.

    Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a spy thriller that will most certainly not be to everybody’s tastes. Just to be clear, it does not have any action in it; few people wield, let alone use guns; there’s no grandstanding over-the-top acting; and the pace will not make your heart race. Indeed Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 production actually takes us back to an age when espionage was a grand chess game, played across continents, across decades, and for the highest stakes. Alfredson is the man behind the original Swedish horror Let the Right One In (which was somewhat unnecessarily remade into the almost shot-for-shot identical Let Me In), and this marks his first foray into Western filmmaking. Adopting a classical approach in terms of shooting style, he has purposefully shot Tinker Tailor in a gritty, grimy way, with a heavy layer of grain pervading the piece, the colour scheme intentionally biased towards browns and greys – with almost no vibrant, bright tones on offer. It’s definitely the height of the Cold War in his vision, the whole country seemingly steeped in grey fog and murky shadows; indeed it’s a visual portrait which may not suit everybody’s tastes, particularly in an age where we’re more used to the crystal-clarity of blockbusters like Avatar and Transformers, but it is also one which perfectly emulates the cloudy, perpetually-on-the-brink-of-War era. Alfredson also takes a step back, literally, in terms of cinematography, capturing the scenes using wider shots – it’s almost a voyeuristic approach (not least in terms of the actual surveillance moments in the movie), further designed to emphasise the espionage elements; it is as if you are eavesdropping on the events that take place.

    His narrative is based on a newly-minted screenplay, but is very respectful of not only the original source novel, but also the acclaimed 1979 TV mini-series adaptation, starring Alex Guiness, to such an extent that the filmmakers even approached John Le Carre himself to perfect the dialogue for their scenes. Whilst there is a hell of a lot to cram in to a comparatively short period of time, the narrative approach of using successive flashbacks works extremely well to retain as much of the book and TV series’ dense plotting. Indeed, this is a movie boasting a particularly classic style, one which feels like it has not been seen for decades, harking back to the days of The Ipcress File (and its first sequel, Funeral in Berlin), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (another Le Carre adaptation), and the Gene Hackman thriller The Conversation.

    “For twenty-five years we've been the only thing standing between Moscow and the Third World War.”

    Of course in Le Carre’s (real) world of spies, the chess-game involved moving players strategically and not sweeping them off the board carelessly. The British Intelligence Services knew where many of the Russian spies were, and the Russians knew where many of the British spies were concealed in Russia – the game wasn’t about arresting or disposing of them (lest retaliations incur similar losses of your own agents who are in enemy territory) but more to do with monitoring them, and making sure that you stay one step ahead in terms of intelligence gathering. Double and triple-agents were commonplace – particularly with so many ostensible defections from the Russian side – and the trick was to make sure that nobody in your ranks was playing for the other team. Indeed Le Carre’s original novel was a dramatic fictionalisation of his experiences in the Government during the 1950s and 60s when the “Cambridge Five” were discovered – an elite group of high-ranking Intelligence Officers who were revealed to have been working for the Russian Intelligence Services.

    As a result of all of this, and of sticking to the source material and adopting such a classic stylisation, the 2011 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy stands out as one of the most intelligent, atmospheric spy thrillers made in over two decades.

    Casting the lead character, Intelligence Officer George Smiley, was apparently quite hard – unsurprisingly when you consider that Alec Guiness epitomised Smiley for so many years – but, after you see Gary Oldman in the part, you will immediately realise that he was the perfect choice. Oldman’s a great British actor, a memorable choice for the villainous parts in Luc Besson’s Leon and The Fifth Element (as well as, more recently, The Book of Eli), as well as a standout co-star in everything from JFK through to his contributions in the Blockbuster Batman and Harry Potter Franchises. In fact, his recurring roles in the Nolan Batman movies as Commissioner Gordon, and as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films marks a graduation from being the go-to actor to play lead villains to being more commonly cast now in prominent father-figure roles. Yet he has seldom had much of an opportunity to take the lead in any productions, big or small. Seldom does not mean never, of course, and we have seen him take on the largely anti-hero central roles in various productions like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the underrated crime drama Romeo is Bleeding, but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy marks his first outright ‘good guy’ leading role in a mainstream blockbuster (no, I don’t count The Unborn), albeit one that has been largely British-funded.

    I cannot think of another actor that could bring this much presence, and seething intellect, behind an almost emotionless exterior, to the part of Smiley. I can’t wait to see this movie again (let alone the intended sequels!) just to pick up on the little nods and subtle expressions that Oldman works into the role – not least that great look on his face; the momentary pause, when Control is first ‘dismissed’ and states that he will be taking Smiley with him, which perfectly echoes the final shot. It’s a masterclass in methodical underacting, poise and restraint, and clinical, calculated delivery. He simply becomes this quietly well-spoken chess master, an insightful strategist almost without equal, whose personal views and often bitter experiences leave him pragmatic, but also cynical. Revelations about his private life, about his own personal history with Karla – the faceless man behind the equivalent Russia Security Services – appear to barely register with him, with none of the expected emotional recognition. Yet beneath the surface there are clearly some demons that still reside, however deep they have been buried. In one powerful moment, Oldman’s Smiley recounts his first meeting with Karla, replaying the scene for us, and giving us the closest thing that we have in this movie to insight into his own character. If anybody’s going to be up for an Oscar in this movie, it should be him.

    Oldman may command the role, and thus carry the movie with his reserved yet powerful performance as the lead character, but there is a whole board-full of other chess pieces, who all come into play at one stage or another. Thus, supporting him we have myriad shady characters brought to life by a host of familiar British names.

    John Hurt, who was originally in the running to play Smiley himself, is more appropriately cast as the original ‘Control’ – the man who first suspects that there is a mole inside The Circus. Hurt’s been making a name for himself in (often ill-fated) glorified cameos like this over the last decade, from Hellboy to Indy IV, and brings an innate sorrow to the piece, the pain of unfinished business weighing heavily on his character. Mark Strong is great as one of the field agent Jim Prideaux, whose character has a fantastic story arc across the piece. Strong is another fantastic character actor, bringing so much to every film he is involved in – from Body of Lies to Syriana, from Sherlock Holmes to Kick-Ass – and he too shows the same great pain and regret that Hurt manages to bring to the piece. BBC’s own modern Sherlock Holmes, Benedict Cumberpatch, does remarkably well in the role of Peter Guillam, Smiley’s inside man within the Intelligence Services, and stalwart Brit heavyweights Ciaran Hinds and Colin Firth get mere snapshots of screentime (arguably not nearly enough to warrant their top billing), but still bring subtle depth to the members of The Circus. Then there’s Tom Hardy, in a role originally envisioned for Michael Fassbender (Fish Tank, X-Men: First Class). Hardy is also on good form, a young upcoming actor who made his mark even with his limited part in Inception; he can bring emotional resonance to bear almost as easily as he does playful, effortless charm. I can’t unconditionally say that Fassbender would not have been a marginally better choice – if purely because Hardy, here quite obviously in training for his more muscle-demanding roles in the newly released Mixed-Martial-Arts drama Warrior, and the upcoming third Nolan Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, is just a little bit too physically big for the role. Still, it’s a minor niggle, and, considering his role as a so-called ‘Scalphunter’ perhaps his physical prowess would not have been all that out of place.

    Which brings me to the jargon. Tinker Tailor is by no means a simple film. Not only does its narrative rely almost entirely on flashback upon flashback – each newly-added character offering up his own convoluted piece to the overall puzzle – the movie consistently eschews any kind of overt exposition, the likes of which film audiences have been used to for years now (even a relatively smart, “thinking man’s” action-thriller like Inception still has an element of this). This story is not spoon-fed, as we have come to expect from even relatively ‘smart’ modern thrillers, but instead naturally developed in the best approximation to the very thoughts that Smiley himself is having with regards to the progress of his investigation. The expressions are subtle but extremely effective, and the dialogue is almost as dense as the plotting, populated by plenty of colloquialisms and nicknames (which Le Carre obviously regarded as commonplace within the spy field. To this end we hear about ‘Control’, who is obviously the head of The Circus; ‘The Circus’ itself is a reference to the Cambridge Circus London location where these key intelligence officials met regularly; ‘Scalphunters’ are those field agents who take on the more dirty, hands-on, work of burglary, kidnap, and assassination; ‘Hoods’ are largely passive infiltrators who pose as prominent politicians and the like; and ‘Inquisitors’ are those who are tasked with interrogating and debriefing defectors, captured spies, and treacherous intelligence officers. Yet all of these are fairly easy to figure out, should you be in the mood to accept the jargon, behaviour and overall mood of the piece. And that is the real question – are you in the mood for this kind of movie?

    Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not the filmmaking equivalent to a Times Cryptic Crossword, indeed that’s more akin to something like Mulholland Drive, or, if it were a particularly generous clue, Memento. Tinker Tailor is not cryptic; it’s not a head-hurting puzzle; in fact it is relatively straightforward at the end of the day, albeit densely plotted and eked out slowly. It is a sumptuous, slow-burning, classically-styled spy thriller which requires your time and your attention for the entire duration of its comparatively reasonable two-hour runtime. Figuring out who the mole is plays an almost secondary role to observing how they investigate his presence and attempt to reveal his identity in a calculated and meticulously-planned fashion; indeed it is Smiley’s methodical, ingenious detective-work which truly captivates in this affair. If you want to play Miss Marple, you’re in the wrong theatre – Tinker Tailor is all about the chess. In that respect, it is one of the best spy thrillers that I have seen in quite some time. Highly recommended.


    One of the best spy thrillers that I have come across recently, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a densely-plotted, expertly crafted foray into the true world of espionage, as taken from ex-spy-turned-author John Le Carre’s authentic source material. Perfectly evocative of the 70s period setting, the film transports us back to a time when the Cold War had made the West a truly grey place, where shifting allegiances and double-dealing were rife; and where a chess-game was being played across continents, with the threat of a Third World War always just around the corner. Driven by a powerfully restrained performance from the great Gary Oldman, who is ably supported by an all-star cast, Director Tomas Alfredson’s cinematic adaptation does not play by the conventions of modern spy thriller filmmaking, eschewing exposition and bombast in favour of a slow-burning, flashback-dominated narrative; long takes, and grain-dominated wide shots. Although it may not be to everybody’s tastes, if given the proper time and consideration, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will likely prove a thoroughly rewarding experience, and remains for me one of the best efforts of 2011, and a definite must-see movie. Highly recommended.

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