Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Review
From its initially pulpy roots as a simple spy novel published in 1974, it rode the wave of social relevance with its obvious mirrorings of the ‘real world’ intelligence community at the time (the Cambridge Five, real double agents found within MI6 in the mid-60s) all the way into a prestige BBC adaptation at a time when the BBC did not grant prestige adaptations to ‘spy stories’.
And it was that hugely popular and critically acclaimed version from 1979 that starred Alec Guinness as mole hunter George Smiley that long stayed in the consciousness of the public. That is until Working Title in 2010 approached Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, a hot property off the back of the superb Let the Right One In, to produce a new film based on the novel.
This new adaptation would follow closely the main narrative of both the source novel and the BBC adaptation – in 1973, George Smiley, after having been forced into retirement following the failure of an operation in Hungary, is asked to return to the Secret Intelligence Service to hunt out a mole that has been feeding Russian counterparts secrets that are jeopardising the lives of British agents. He agrees and with his own small team sets about piecing together the evidence that has led to the theory of a mole and then the subsequent investigation into unmasking him before more lives are lost…
Less a film about rollocking spy capers and action shenanigans, more a character study about the impacts of living a life that requires near permanent secret keeping and professional lying, it’s a superbly realised mood piece. We witness the same kind of cinematic spy tropes shown time and time again, yet here they are shot through with the themes of abject loneliness and regret, of cynicism and the acceptance of the lack of any kind of moral differences between the sides drawn in this particular war. Amongst the aging men and women realising that their world, their society, their entire existence is changing and aging and dying with them, it becomes a beautifully stark human piece about the price people are willing or unwilling to pay for what they think they believe in.
Alfredson brings a stunningly measured and buttoned-down approach to every element of the film but it's one that is perfectly in tune with its time and its society - London in the early 70’s was a long way from the swinging 60’s glitz of Carnaby Street - and from every corner of the production design to every shot, lighting and film stock choice made, it’s a film that ‘feels’ of a very real time and a very real place.
... a gripping film that is fully deserving of its many critical plaudits
Even a cast crammed full of bona fide movie stars – Gary Oldman, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Cairan Hinds, Mark Strong and more – can’t bring any glamour to the film and neither should they. All are as mannered yet rounded as the film itself, perfectly aligned to the tone and feel of the film, even with the constraints this places on them: with terrifyingly constrained emotions – the film’s only outburst, a conversation with slightly raised voices, doesn’t take place until its closing minutes – the cast are a superb embodiment of the film’s core themes. Even with some them wearing the most outrageous hairpieces ever committed to film.
And for a film without standout set pieces, without emotional outbursts, almost without any of the traditional tools available by which modern cinema can excite, entertain, inform and emote, it manages to hook in its audience through good, old fashioned narrative beats and a near perfect structure. One that not only effectively introduces us into an unfamiliar world without breaking a sweat but that steadily builds to its crescendo via a complex but accessible web of flashbacks that fill in any gaps in our understanding of the investigation with clinical efficiency.
Given its sedate pace, it won’t be a film for everyone – ironically released in this new 4K edition on the same day as another aging British spy’s latest adventure, for those expecting more bangs, crashes and wallops in their spy game, there simply may not be enough here. Similarly, in making the necessary compromises to fit Le Carre’s doorstop novel into a two-hour film, the Russian characters are given barely any room to have them be anything other than whispered names in passing.
But that doesn’t take too much away from this masterful adaptation. Thematically dense and very much a rich character study less of any particular individuals but more of the intelligence game curing the Cold War itself, it’s a gripping film that is fully deserving of its many critical plaudits received in the decade since its release.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 4K Video
TTSS was shot on 35mm using Panavision Panaflex cameras and Panavision Primo lenses. While little is known about the transfer on this 4K disc from Studiocanal, reports suggest it is a new 4K restoration from original camera materials, approved by DoP Hoyte van Hoytema. And the disc presents this as a native 3840 x 2160p resolution image with a fixed aspect ratio of 2.39:1 that uses 10-bit video depth, High Dynamic Range in both HDR10 and Dolby Vision flavours and is encoded using the HEVC (H.265) codec.
We reviewed the Region free UK Ultra HD Blu-ray release of TTSS on a JVC-DLA N5 Ultra HD 4K projector, a Philips 55PUS6754/12 and a Panasonic DP-UB9000 Dolby Vision HDR10 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player.
... a visual upgrade, albeit not a hugely significant one
The image looks perfectly in keeping with its period aesthetic – grain is immediately noticeable and thick. But it appears to be perfectly rendered, with no obvious issues such as clumping, frozen elements or other noise hidden inside it. And of course, the real benefit of having that grain so well handled is that the image retains all the detail originally captured.
Fine detail is present in every element of the image – from the fine strands of Oldman’s hair to the pores on his neck to the textured design of his suit collar in the shot at 7 minutes 6 seconds, the image looks organically sharp. There was no evidence of any sharpening applied to any elements and the picture is consistently detailed, with no softening of the image noted throughout.
Colour, or lack thereof, is hugely important. Without any obvious splashes of bright primary colours, the texture of the film’s world is therefore given through varying muted shades of earthy natural tones. And the HDR and WCG is employed tastefully to just bring that little bit more richness to the film’s textures. A perfect example of this occurs at 4 minutes 5 seconds, with the profile shot of the sweaty waiter – the highlights of the sweat against the pores of his face have a lovely natural feel to them, even more so in his hair. For want of using a much-derided term, the colours here ‘pop’ in a way that just brings them to life wonderfully, rather than sears themselves on the viewers' eyeballs.
Studicanal has had some problems recently with discs and the differences between the HDR10 layers and the DV layers – Total Recall being one notable example. But here, there were no issues seen at all with the HDR10 layer on this reviewer’s projector. In switching to the DV layer and viewed on an LCD panel, again there did not appear to be any significant differences between the two grades – whichever you can access, you’re going to get a lovely picture.
And finally, disc compression appears to be very consistent and good, with no noticeable artefacts observed – bitrates hover between 35 and 45mbps for the most part across the entire film, with the odd peak nudging 50mbps, all of which were observed with a quick scan through the film’s playback information for those that like numbers.
It’s not going to be many people’s demo disc of choice, but for a film very much of its time and setting, the look is hugely important and this 4K release gives a wonderfully textured representation of this.
In comparison to the previous 2011 Blu-ray, recent screencaps from elsewhere on the internet show a significant difference in terms of fine detail. In the real world however – well, normal sitting distances from a 92” screen – those differences are less pronounced. However, they are still there - a tightening up of the fine lines is seen on a handful of comparison shots. Yet the biggest difference is in the colour grading and the 4K disc’s use of HDR – using the example mentioned above of the sweaty waiter, the new 4K HDR grades seem to fill out the top and bottom end of the colour spectrum: shadows are darker, highlights are brighter; while the old release felt squeezed in terms of its colour palette. This new release therefore does represent a visual upgrade, albeit not a hugely significant one.
Final note – the included 1080p Blu-ray is the exact same disc from the previous release, right down to its artwork. A quick comparison of the two Blu-ray’s show the same transfer is on both – same colour scheme, etc.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 4K Audio
Again, matching the 2011 release, the disc has two main soundtracks – English LPCM 2.0 (which is the default track) and 5.1 DTS-HD MA. There’s also an audio descriptive track and English hard of hearing subtitles – but that’s it.
We reviewed the Region free UK Ultra HD Blu-ray release of TTSS on a Denon AVR4300 and a 7.2.4 array of Kef speakers (including the Q range and ci in-walls/in-ceilings).
... a very pleasing soundtrack that again matches the mood and tone of the film perfectly
There are few audio fireworks to go with the subdued visuals. But that doesn’t mean the soundtrack isn’t hugely pleasing. The main beneficiary of this nicely balanced and nuanced mix is Alberto Iglesias’ score – almost unnoticeable until called in to enhance the drama onscreen, it sneaks up and slowly fills the room. There’s a lovely timbre to it, with nice depth and crisp highs always used in a very unshowy manner.
The dialogue is crystal clear at all times and is firmly locked to the centre speaker. It is prioritised nicely in the mix, but never overtly so, retaining a lovely place in the overall sound mix. And while there’s little use of the surrounds outside of some the ambient sounds of particularly Tom Hardy’s flashback scenes, it's still a very pleasing soundtrack that again matches the mood and tone of the film perfectly.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 4K Extras
The extras on this release are included on the 4K disc itself (which are then completely different from those on the 1080p release, which are the exact same as on the previous 2011 release) and are:
- Legacy audio commentary with Alfredson and Oldman;
- New – a conversation with Alfredson and Mark Kermode (37 mins);
- New – interview with critic Jason Solomons (19 mins);
- New – interview with film historian Matthew Sweet (20 mins); and
- New – interview with Le Carre biographer Adam Sisman (15 mins).
... a nicely comprehensive collection of interesting supplements
The new interviews are really interesting and give much needed distance to the film, all placing it in a much more interesting cinematic and modern context than those filmed at the time of the film’s release. All are worthy of a watch.
The included 1080p Blu-ray retains all the featurettes, deleted scenes and marketing materials of the previous release. Its nice to see Studiocanal not just adding new extras but retaining all the legacy ones too. Across both discs, it’s a nicely comprehensive collection of interesting supplements.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 4K Blu-ray Review
Slow, sedate, dour, beige… the film is indeed all of those things. But come to it wanting to understand what makes the characters of this world tick and of the world itself and there’s a huge amount to enjoy here, with a brilliantly nuanced and textured world brought to life through some lovely characters and overarching themes.
... a great release for a great film, one that can be wholeheartedly recommended
This new 4K disc release from Studiocanal not just gives an enhanced transfer to the film, but adds in some fascinating new supplementals too and all within a price point of a standard release. No big box ‘o tat and inflated asking price here! It’s a great release for a great film, one that can be wholeheartedly recommended.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is released by Studiocanal in the UK on two-disc 4K UHD on the 20th December.
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