John Le Carre has always written very ‘serious’ spy novels. By that I mean that they were very cold, clinical and did not exude the gloss and glamour of the world of espionage popularly portrayed by other writers. His heroes never had the latest set of gadgets from ‘Q’ Branch, nor did they perform near impossible physical feats to overcome the villains of the piece. This was the case in the books and it was carried forward with the 1979 BBC adaptation of ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ when Sir Alec Guiness made the role of spymaster George Smiley his own.
It should come as no great surprise then, that the very recent movie version of ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, (now out on UK Region B locked Blu-ray) should be any different. If it had been, the legions of Le Carre fans would have been very disappointed. Directed by Tomas Alfredson (‘Let the Right One In’), it boasts a superb cast including Gary Oldman (as Smiley), Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch (‘Sherlock’ himself) and Ciaran Hinds – not to forget the great Kathy Burke.
The cast list alone is worth the price of the Blu-ray as they all deliver strong, credible performances, while Gary Oldman truly excels as George Smiley. I have never seen such an understated performance from an actor and it reveals his knowledge of his craft when you take into account his performances in ‘The Fifth Element’ and ‘Lost in Space’.
To summarise the story of ‘Tinker Tailor...’ is difficult without it being too glib or giving too much away, but here goes. We’re back in the grim, grey 1970’s at the height of the Cold War where agents and double agents seem commonplace. The top level of the British Secret Service, known as ‘The Circus’, is made up of five people with high security clearance – led by someone known as ‘Control’ (John Hurt). One of their number is suspected of being a ‘mole’ who secretly supplies information to the Russians, headed up by ‘Karla’. During an operation to reveal the identity of the mole a top operative, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), is shot and the fallout means that Control and his right hand man, George Smiley, are ‘retired’ from the service. A year later, the new Control realises the suspicions were grounded in fact and pulls Smiley out of retirement in order to find out which of his staff is working for Karla.
Courtesy of Director of Photography, Hoyte Van Hoytema, Britain in the 1970’s looks like a truly miserable place to live. The grainy look is very much in evidence and everything appears pale, dull and depressing. This blends well with the rather sombre atmosphere pervading the tale. In short, everything is low key.
Tomas Alfredson tells the story through the use of successive flashbacks, so you really have to pay attention if you are not to miss out on an important piece of detail. He doesn’t spoon feed his audience so much as force them to concentrate and make the necessary links for themselves. The whole movie is like a giant Chess game, underlined by the spymaster cello-taping pictures of the players to actual Chess pieces. The stimulation of the movie comes from watching the game play out before your eyes, rather than being a ‘whodunit’. We wonder what’s going to happen next, or rather, what the next move is likely to be.
‘Tinker Tailor...’ held my attention for its 127 minutes running time although I did feel that the time went slowly but was too afraid to look at my watch in case I missed something important. Many people will not have the attention span, or indeed interest in this kind of movie and will totally dispute the fact that others claim it to be a very good, well made film. It’s the kind of picture that critics rave about, but a large percentage of the general public might not warm to wholeheartedly. We live in a world of push button instant gratification. Information is delivered in ‘sound bites’. If someone takes too long to tell a story on TV’s ‘The Graham Norton Show’, they are ejected from the red chair. Everything is geared to a fast moving lifestyle. All of this makes me wonder how many people will get ‘Tinker Tailor...’ – or eject it from the tray of their DVD or Blu-ray player after 20 minutes.
Putting it bluntly, there aren’t any car chases in this movie. Nobody leaps through the air while simultaneously firing two pistols, stylishly held sideways. There are no massive, foundation shaking explosions. There are no witty one liners.
Where it succeeds is in condensing the book, and indeed the content of a TV mini-series, into a two hour format. There’s an awful lot jammed in here, but the style of direction and the pacing make it seem quite leisurely – while the flashbacks used as cinematic devices make it all possible. The inclusion of many wide shots allows the story to be played out in front of us, so we are ‘voyeurs’ and almost ‘flies on the wall’. We remain detached and this delivers the clinical feel of the novel.
When all is said and done, I come back to the central performance of Gary Oldman as the glue that binds. My benchmark for the recognition of good acting is when my brain doesn’t say “Wow, that’s good acting!”, simply because nobody appears to be acting. This was very much the case here as Oldman conveys the intense intelligence of George Smiley through great restraint in movement and reaction. Every tiny nuance was carefully planned and limited. It made it extremely hard to take your eyes off his face as you searched for a clue to what he was thinking. What was he planning to do next?
To sum up ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, I’d say that it’s probably the most intelligent film I’ve seen in a long time, with a densely packed plot and an almost hypnotic attraction. The script, photography and direction are all excellent and the largely British cast give of their best. Having said all of that, I still have my doubts over how it will go down with a general audience but for those who can stay with it, it’s a great Spy movie. Best not to see it after a long and tiring day.
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