Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - Review
Review by Rob Carnevale
AT A time when the spy genre is looking to keep up with the frenetic pace of Jason Bourne, it’s a brave, bold move to revert back to a more traditional style of storytelling… braver still to base that work on one of the great novels of modern literature that’s already been turned into a definitive BBC TV series.
But director Tomas Alfredson and writers Peter Straughan and his late wife Bridget O’Connor have pulled off their own mission impossible by turning Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy into one of the most stylish and intelligent films of this or any year. And they’ve done it by assembling one of the best British casts of all-time and with a little help from source master John Le Carre.
Tinker Tailor won’t be to everyone’s tastes. It’s far too slow for some and probably too confusing for others.
But therein lies many of its pleasures. Alfredson’s film operates more in the silences that often convey so much more than words. It’s about deceptions, misplaced loyalties, broken individuals and the uncertainty of the Cold War.
At the centre of it all is George Smiley, a veteran spy pulled back from the brink of retirement to find a mole within MI6 who is feeding information to the Russians.
The mole has already been accountable for a botched defection in Budapest, which left unlucky spy Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) with a bullet in the back, and has prompted Smiley’s old boss Control (John Hurt), head of MI6’s Circus, to turn to his old friend to investigate the most likely suspects.
Among these are suave ladies man Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), sour-faced Scot Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), gruff, self-serving Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Hungarian émigré Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), as well as Smiley himself.
Helping out, meanwhile, are younger spy Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumerbatch), a sort of Watson to Smiley’s Holmes, and Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), a renegade agent who has come back in from the cold aware that his life is in danger because of the damaging information he holds.
Alfredson’s film is, in many ways, as intricate and thoughtful as the game of chess… the various pawns skilfully moved around ‘70s London as they attempt to help or hinder Smiley. It’s a world far removed from the glamour of 007, where the ability to blend into furniture and observe is as useful a weapon as a Walter PPK.
It’s what makes Gary Oldman’s performance as Smiley so outstanding. The actor has to convey so much with so little dialogue, often listening and piecing things together in his own way. And yet there are so many layers to him… personal pains born from his failed marriage and his failed attempts to capture his professional nemesis… the certainties of his upbringing replaced by the uncertainties surrounding the shifting political landscape of the ‘70s.
Smiley is a quietly mesmerising presence, skilfully revealed by Oldman’s nuanced, subtle performance. It’s rightly been tipped as a possible Oscar contender, especially since it has also had to emerge from the shadow of the late Alec Guinness. It’s perhaps the biggest compliment you can pay Oldman that he makes the role his own.
But none of the cast are wasted… not even Kathy Burke in a blinding cameo with Oldman, or Stephen Graham, once again making the most of a small opportunity.
Cumberbatch, who gets most of the film’s ‘action’ sequences (and we use that term advisedly), Hardy, Strong and Firth are particularly good.
Alfredson, too, deserves maximum credit for keeping things so gripping without ever needing to resort to anything showy or distracting. A revelatory sequence on a runway involving Smiley and an adversary is so, so stylish that you’ll be replaying it in your mind for days, while the slow-burning nature of the various reveals are so cleverly realised that you’ll be piecing them together for hours afterwards (especially if you’re not familiar with the book or TV series).
If the term masterpiece falls just out of reach (for this reviewer at least) perhaps that’s because it even requires a second viewing to see just how masterful the whole thing is – once characters can be viewed through the benefit of hindsight and small actions and glances become more meaningful.
But it’s a further measure of the film’s success that those who enjoy its pace and intricacy will want to revisit the film time and time again, both to savour the performances and the way the story comes together.
It’s a master-class in fusing style with intelligence, anchored by one of the performances of the year from Oldman.
Running time: 127mins
UK Release Date: September 16, 2011
- Read our review
- Gary Oldman interview
- Colin Firth interview
- Tom Hardy interview
- Tomas Alfredson and Peter Straughan interview
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Photo Gallery
- View character posters