MI6 guest reviewer Ben Williams casts his eye over
the 2011 silver screen adaptation of John Le Carre's
Cold War spy thriller...
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) - Review
16th October 2011
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is a truly grand achievement.
Swedish director Tomas Alfredson and British husband and wife
screenwriters Peter Straughan & the late Bridget O'Connor
have managed to take Le Carre’s richly layered, meandering
and complex novel and redact it and restructure it into a film
that still retains the essential core of the narrative and simultaneously
captures the novel’s melancholic tone.
The achievement here is not only to make a film that stands
up to Le Carre’s masterpiece, but in also making a story set
in a Cold War that has long since thawed, still compelling and
relevant. Soviet Russia no longer threatens our ideology or promises
our annihilation, and the embarrassment of the Cambridge Five
is now consigned to the history books, yet “Tinker Tailor
Soldier Spy” impels us to desperately care about the outcome
of this mole hunt, despite knowing the inevitable outcome.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” achieves this by presenting
a very human face to espionage, by making the film less of a
political drama than it is a personal one. The film is populated
by characters that are flawed; each motivated by their own desires,
their greed and their self-preservation, and it is through their
relationships that this film comes alive.
Each actor gives us a revealing character study, every one
of them giving us an insight into the lives of their characters
that is always pitch-perfect and utterly believable. Whether
it is Mark Strong’s withdrawn, heartbroken Prideaux, Tom
Hardy’s out of depth and lovelorn Ricki Tarr, or Benedict
Cumberbatch’s principled yet closeted Peter Guillam, we
go with them on their emotional journeys and are made to feel
This is nowhere so evident as with Gary Oldman’s Smiley.
The film rests squarely on his shoulders and his character’s
story. George Smiley, having been unceremoniously ousted from
the Secret Intelligence Service known as the Circus, is ordered
out of retirement when it is discovered that there is a mole
in their ranks. This mole resides at the very head of the Circus,
among the small group of men that are running the whole show,
and it is Smiley, now an outsider and therefore trusted, who
is uniquely positioned to investigate.
Oldman gives a controlled and nuanced performance as George
Smiley, a man who has been rejected by his service, cuckolded
wife and betrayed by a friend. A man who is, at the same time,
a brilliant and calculating investigator, determined to uncover
the truth by any means. His Smiley is a patient, dogged, but
tired man. Like a prizefighter that has been squarely knocked
down, but is determined to see it through to the last round,
there is a mixture of fatigue and resolution about him.
of the men under suspicion have been assigned codenames (the
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier of the title) by the since deceased
head of the Circus, C, played with appropriate aloof disdain
by John Hurt. Each man, whether due to their political agendas,
their greed, or simply their desire to please, seems equally
likely to be the mole, which, considering their position,
does not bode well for the Intelligence Service.
However, the story of how this vital secret was discovered,
the very notion that there is indeed a mole in the Circus, is
more vital in terms of the narrative that the actual uncovering
of the mole himself. It is a journey that takes us from a botched
defection in Budapest to the romancing of a Soviet agent’s
wife in Turkey. Each of these events will prove to have shocking
and deadly consequences.
The film is also a visual delight. Set in the mid-Seventies,
the production design is period perfect, capturing the look and
feel of the time without ever slipping into cliché. The
drab colour palate of beige and grey creates a sense of overarching
sense of melancholia. The detailing is incredible and is supported
by the costume design that captures the colour, cut and drape
of the sartorial Seventies perfectly.
The photography also seems to capture the period, with the
sickly, yellowing neon light filling the Circus, and the cluttered
claustrophobic, cigarette smoke-filled rooms of the hotels
and homes impart a feeling of oppression and disquiet.
The direction is simply first-rate. Remarkably for a Swede,
Tomas Alfredson has managed to thoroughly create a sense of Britishness,
to somehow capture a feeling wet mid-afternoon misery. He has
captured the squalid world of espionage that is the antithesis
of the glamour and cartoonish violence of James Bond. There
no explosions here, just a measured racking up of the tension
and the violence, when it does occur, is realistic, brutal
and tragic. There is never the sense of fatherly devotion from
head of the service to the field operative. Instead there is
snobbery, betrayal and rejection. Alfredson portrays a service
with a schoolboy obsession for pleasing the Americans, obsessed
with the quality of the intel rather than the result it might
achieve or at what expense it was obtained; a service that
teeters on the brink of collapse, and worse disrespectability.
There are stylistic references and nods to such films as “Rear
Window”, but whilst this film may pay homage, it is never
anything other than a masterpiece in its own right.
Overall, this is one of the most accomplished films of the
last few decades, a film that turns the focus of the spy thriller
right back to espionage and suspense, a film that is an outstanding
display of performance and technical achievement, and a Cold
War thriller that has somehow remained relevant by reflecting
the mood of a turbulent Britain.
Thanks to Ben Williams.
The opinions expressed in this review are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MI6-HQ.com or its owners.