Published on September 16th, 2011 | by Tony McD0
Movie Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
So a spy movie eh? And adapted from a highly successful series of novels no less? So far, so very familiar. Expect action, car chases, hand-to-hand, life-or-death combat and a very fetching femme fatale. Except don’t, because this is no ordinary spy movie, and it’s adapted from no ordinary spy novel. This is a British thespian spy movie, and it’s from the pen of the most celebrated of spy authors, John Le Carré. For those unfamiliar with his oeuvre you would do well to check his novels out, or, for a more casual glance at the difference between his work and the rest of the pack, recent film adaptations have included the Geoffrey Rush/Pierce Brosnan romp The Tailor of Panama (a less-than faithful but enjoyable reworking) and the Ralph Fiennes/Rachel Weisz Oscar-winner The Constant Gardener (which is both faithful and brilliant). There is no room in Le Carré’s world for shaky camera shots of inexplicable martial arts, no space in the story for a baddie with a scar and a plot to ruin the world. Le Carré, a former Cold War MI5 and MI6 officer himself, operates definitively in multiple shades of grey. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is bulging with these many hues.
The premise is simple enough: it’s Cold War London (late 60s/early 70s) and there is a KGB mole at the very top of MI6. A recently retired official, George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is charged with finding out who it is. Based in an outside office and recruiting help from old friends and trusted former colleagues (Benedict Cumberbatch and Kathy Bates amongst them) he investigates the quartet at the pinnacle of ‘the Circus’ (Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Toby Esterhase, Ciarán Hinds) in an attempt to flush out the traitor. Based on the real-life events of the Cambridge Five (wiki it) which led Le Carré himself to quit the intelligence business, it’s a thoroughly absorbing story, but also one which with so many characters and so many possibilities should never be made into a film. The much-loved 1979 BBC television adaptation, with Alec Guinness in the George Smiley role, ran to seven episodes. The key to making a plot like this work in truncated theatrical release form is to keep the level of suspense high at all times, and here Norwegian director Tomas Alfredson really makes his mark. Replicating the sparse dialogue and limited music of his 2008 indie-horror hit Let The Right One In, Alfredson’s direction has the ability to jump from place to place and character to character without ever getting too confusing or straying too far from the main plot. Grainy filters infuse the camera work with a 70s BBC-style hue which only serves to make the scenes more comfortable and easier to become absorbed in. There are fluffed moments in the adaptation, and large chunks are left out or skimmed over as is necessary, but apart from a slackening of pace at the end of the second act the piece remains coherent, taut and atmospheric throughout.
With so few distractions, Alfredson creates the space to draw stellar performances across the board from his cast of award-winning actors. Nobody is intrinsically good or evil, everyone is as flawed as the shady world in which they operate and the audience, like the characters themselves, are never entirely sure who they can trust. Oldman – playing his first memorable lead role in years – and Tom Hardy as intelligence officer Ricki Tarr in particular steal the show, but set pieces for Esterhase and Cumberbatch allow them to flex their thespian muscles with aplomb. It’s hard to find a poor performance in the bunch – this truly is one of the best group performances I can remember and acting gongs can’t be far off.
The abiding impression the film leaves you with is how very different it feels to anything else that has been released this year, or indeed for a long time. It looks deliberately unpolished, and as a long-time Le Carré fan I can safely say it is not a perfect reproduction of the book but it remains utterly compelling and engrossing throughout. The difference between Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and every other spy film of the last decade is the same as the difference between Le Carré’s novels and those of Ian Fleming or Robert Ludlum: it feels honest, believable. If you’re looking for a film that will engage and challenge you without drifting into art-house abstraction then I can’t think of a finer example, especially after a summer of disappointments at the multiplex. See this film; it’s as close to flawless as you’ll find.