By John Fanning (Guest Writer)
Based on John Le Carré’s novel of the same name, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is director Tomas Alfredson’s latest adaptation of a well-known book. In 2008, the Swede’s version of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s vampire horror story Let the Right One In achieved critical acclaim around the world, and with Tinker Tailor he seems certain to repeat that success. Alfredson is a master of context, his attention to detail effortlessly capturing the Zeitgeist. In Let the Right One In, he depicted the eerie isolation of a Stockholm suburb in the 1980s; in Tinker Tailor, he portrays the tiredness of 1970s Britain. This is a time of grey suits, typewriters and fallen empires, a world gripped by Cold War paranoia and political intrigue.
When Control (John Hurt), chief spy at the Circus, suspects that the Soviet Union has infiltrated the Secret Intelligence Service, his begins to distrust his colleagues. He dispatches Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary to discover the identity of the Soviet ‘mole’. Prideaux’s mission goes wrong, and Control and trusted lieutenant George Smiley (Gary Oldman) are sacked. Following Control’s death, Whitehall wonk Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) hears talk of the mole from agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) and secretly enlists Smiley and young spook Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) to investigate. Control had narrowed his suspicions to four men: ambitious Scotsman Percy Alleline (‘Tinker’), the smooth Bill Haydon (‘Tailor’), bruiser Roy Bland (‘Soldier’) and Hungarian Toby Esterhase (‘Poorman’) played by Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds and David Dencik respectively. The inscrutable Smiley picks up the thread where his erstwhile boss had left it, carefully putting pieces of the puzzle into place.
Fans of the spy genre more accustomed to James Bond or Jason Bourne might wonder what happened to the martinis, girls and guns – there is no doubt that this, like the book, is a slow-burner. Yet it is the omission of such clichés and the slower pacing which lend such tremendous authenticity to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. There are few action sequences, no cheesy one-liners, and no dei ex machina from Q Branch snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Instead, the plot depends on good old-fashioned sleuthing: Smiley passes sleepless nights poring over documents stolen from the Circus archives by a daring Guillam and finds out about the mole by asking the right people. Le Carré’s story, rewritten for the screen by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, harks back to a more cerebral age, long before geo-positioning satellites and iPhone apps replaced brain-power.
Tinker Tailor features a who’s-who of British acting talent, and Stephen Graham (whose appeal remains a mystery to this reviewer). While few will waste any superlatives discussing Oldman’s performance (and, true to form, he is first class), perhaps more should be made of those players in supporting roles. The likes of Strong, Cumberbatch and Hardy are, with justification, quickly becoming household names; it must only be a matter of time before they graduate to leading roles in their own right. Strong as the dark and bitter Prideaux, Cumberbatch as the bright and loyal Guillam and Hardy as the playboy maverick Tarr were truly inspired choices. Special mention goes also to Firth (as ever), Jones and Hurt for their portrayals of characters as deeply flawed as the philandering Haydon, ambitious Alleline and obsessive Control. It would be remiss also to overlook Kathy Burke – long absent from our screens – whose ‘seriously under-fucked’ line added the sort of comic relief for which she is famous.
Despite the strong field, there is little doubt who will win the acting plaudits. Filling Alec Guinness’s shoes is not easy (just ask Ewan McGregor), but Oldman’s Smiley will please fans of the BBC serialisation and Le Carré’s novel. Smiley is the typical anti-hero; a bespectacled, grey and dour man with an unassuming personality and an unfaithful wife. Oldman’s performance draws out Smiley’s quiet dignity, portraying a man whose sense of duty transcends his personal woes. Through it we become so accustomed to the calm, hard-done-by Smiley that when he raises his voice towards the end of the film it comes as a surprise. In another scene, Smiley – relating a previous conversation with Karla to Guillam – addresses an empty chair which represents the elusive Soviet agent. Oldman handles this brilliantly, simultaneously conveying his character’s authority and diffidence. The performance makes the film’s resolution – a subtle departure from the original text – that much more satisfying.
With the exception of one or two small changes (Prideaux is betrayed in Hungary rather than Czechoslovakia and an open air vent replaces a couple of milk bottles as a signal that ‘all is well’) the film stays faithful to Le Carré’s novel. Yet one of the book’s weaknesses is that its characterisation lacks sufficient depth. Some of the characters are just barely more than names on a page, which obscures their motivation. This tendency is also evident in the film; for example, we find nothing out about Roy Bland despite his being ‘Soldier’, one of the prime suspects in Smiley’s investigation. Not knowing what might drive a spy to betray his paymaster removes some of the ‘whodunit’ urgency from the film – why should we care if we are not told why he is a suspect? Perhaps this is deliberate: the story is less about the other characters and more about Smiley’s methods and eventual rehabilitation, but it still seems to be a glaring omission.
Despite this, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an undoubted highlight of the autumn. An engaging film which trades on strong performances from British acting royalty and does justice to its top-notch source material, this is a spy flick for the cinema-goer who resents leaving his or her brain in the lobby. Alfredson’s latest will give punters plenty to discuss (or work out) over their post-cinema pint. Watch it, and have one for AMO.
9 OUT OF 10