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(Le) Carré on spying: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) ~ Review

November 23, 2011

Directed by: Tomas Alfredson

Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Hurt, Tom Hardy, Ciarán Hinds, Mark Strong, David Dencik, Roger Lloyd Pack, Kathy Burke

Screenplay by: Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan

UK/ France; 127 minutes; Colour; Certificate: 15


Seeing as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy‘s been on release for weeks and thus received its wave of hype and publicity, well, weeks ago, in only now catching up and seeing it I’ll admit I’ve been behind the curve. Just like, cynics may suggest, the folks who made this flick have been in making it at all, given the seemingly universally adored 1979 BBC TV version of John Le Carré’s classic espionage novel, published five years before, most certainly got there first. So are the cynics right, was there any point making this movie? Well, peeps, given it’s bloomin’ marvellous, I’d answer a resounding yes.

All right, granted, I’m still to get around to viewing the Alec Guinness-starring telly version and reading the book – I’m a Fleming man, truth be told; I’ve always most enjoyed my fictional espionage as glamorous fantasy. The novel, though, by Le Carré (who receives an executive producer credit on this film and appears in a party scene cameo) is famed for being nothing like Bond. It’s Cold War spy-craft as near reality; dark, wordy, tactical, even depressing. His is the world of spooks that carry on their shoulders the burden of preventing World War Three like Atlas carrying his oh-so heavy globe. They keep a lifetime’s worth of secrets and/ or regrets in their hearts. Many are cold, ruthless, but decent people who thoroughly believe in Britain. Some of them are misled Reds. Others are just plain bastards. And the trick that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy the movie pulls off so successfully is in bringing this world to the screen. It arguably doesn’t do it vividly or dynamically; it does it subtlely and quietly. And it’s brilliant for it.

Its universe is that of men with bad haircuts in bad suits and bad ties, grey skies and grey concrete, cheap Christmas decorations and cheaper cars, crap caravans and peeling paint on window panes. It’s the sort of world in which George Formby is still played on the radio, causing peeps to tap their feet infectiously. In short, it’s the 1970s and the sense of oppressive decay that pervades everything mirrors the atmosphere inside British Intelligence that the flick’s story is all about.

After a bungled job in Hungary goes badly wrong, British Intelligence – or MI6 – chief ‘Control’ (Hurt) and his fellow ageing and most trusted operative George Smiley (Oldman) are forced out. ‘Control’ (who is endearingly referred to as nothing else throughout the flick) quickly kicks the bucket, but Smiley is brought out of retirement by the politicos to investigate his former boss’s concern that a ‘mole’, who’s been working for the Soviets for decades, is embedded at ‘The Circus’, the affectionate term for MI6’s London HQ. Calling on the aid of a young spook (Cumberbatch with, actually, an ace haircut) and a former Special Branch police officer (Roger Lloyd Pack aka Only Fools And Horses‘ Trigger – yes, really), Smiley focuses his investigation on what seems to be a clue left by ‘Control’, which points to the ‘mole’ either being among the cabal that’s seized control of ‘The Circus’ (Jones, Firth, Hinds and Dencik) or Smiley himself…

At the heart of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy then is George Smiley. In the hands of Gary Oldman, Smiley is an oustanding character, if a curious cinematic hero; all intellectual rigour but emotional restraint – rather like a former winner on University Challenge who wonders whether his life’s endeavours and sacrifices have all been worth it. Yet he – and the rest of the fine ensemble cast all on tip-top form, especially Cumberbatch, Hardy and Strong who together get considerable screen-time (even if, a little disappointingly, Hinds does not) – are indebted to their screenwriters and director. The latter is the Swede Tomas Alfredson who, having already greatly impressed with the also previously-decade-set, but unusual and moving vampire horror Låt Den Rätte Komma In (Let The Right One In) (2008), takes the formers’ script – which (one assumes) is an excellent exercise in condensing the plot-heavy, detailed text of Le Carré’s novel – and ensures its story unravels if not at a snail’s pace, then at a tortoise’s. And, frankly, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

For this movie, telling an old-school story in an old-school setting, is filmed in an old-school style; it’s a slow-burner. Which means the plot and the characters are given room to breathe, to grow. The drama unfolds gradually, but becomes more and more engaging, ensuring it’s positively, skilfully gripping come its conclusion. Alfredson, as noted, resists using visual gimmicks or flashy editing to help tell his tale (it isn’t a Life On Mars-style ‘look at me!’ ’70s feel, more a dreary ’70s look that aims for a sort of anti-nostalgia). And yet, having said that, both the montages that open and close the movie are ones to cherish, while the sets are delightfully rich in detail: a bureaucratic poster on an MI6 wall warns that using a telephone risks one being overheard as a character is experiencing just that; graffiti on a London brick wall declares the feminist mantra ‘the future is female’ (the present being a totally masculine-led, fading Britain).

This is a film whose themes, characters and appearance are all about things going wrong, falling into disrepute and being past their best, but it leaves the viewer feeling anything but – it reeks of strong storytelling, excellent acting, spot-on observation of time and place; put simply, undeniable quality. This viewer was so drawn into Smiley and co.’s world that, come the end, he found himself spying his fellow cinemagoing strangers leaving their seats and, for a childish second, fantasising whether they might be, could be nefarious double-agents just like those who were up on the screen seconds before. Why? Because the concoction he’d just witnessed, anti-nostalgia it may’ve been, was also an irresistible, heady, old-school brew.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 24, 2011 12:59 am

    With that list of actors: Oldman, Firth, Cumberbatch, Hurt, Hardy, Hinds, Strong, Lloyd Pack and Kathy Burke I would be very surprised if it was anything less than perfect.
    I do not recognise the names David Dencik and Toby Jones, but I am sure they learnt from their peers in this film.
    I have to admit I was in my hormonal mid 20’s when the TV version was aired. I also ended up in hospital for 6 months when a “friend” picked a fight! So, I missed a lot of TV at the time.
    I have seen some of the superb Alec Guinness version since then. That man was one of the best ever actors.
    So, if the film version is as good as you say… then who knows, maybe an Oscar next year?
    A film full of good British actors has a reputation to uphold and to beat!

  2. November 24, 2011 1:48 am

    Yup, as modern mainstream movies go, Peter, it’s certainly that good.

    It would be daylight robbery if it didn’t receive an Oscar nom for Best Picture (especially considering there’s 10 of them nowadays), plus for me Alfredson, Oldman and the script all deserve nods too.

    But, if it is nominated, it won’t win Best Picture – it’s no King’s Speech; the Academy certainly like many things British, but not things this morally contentious and gloomily introspective… 😉

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