This article was originally published to SSP Thinks Film by Sam Sewell-Peterson.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Screenwriters: Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan
Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, David Dencik, Roger Lloyd Pack, Stephen Graham, Kathy Burke, Simon McBurney
Oddly enough, ten years on from its initial release and despite its 1970s setting, cold grey buildings and colder grey suits, Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carré’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” feels more relevant and connective today than ever. Perhaps it’s because our world in this third decade of the 21st Century is becoming as ridiculous, conspiratorial and paranoia-fuelled as it was at the height of the Cold War. Talk about depressing.
The British Secret Service, known euphemistically as The Circus, has a mole among their number. A vital operation in Europe has been botched, resulting in the apparent death of a key agent and the loss of vital intelligence. Whoever has infiltrated the Circus continues to send information of utmost sensitivity back to Moscow, and with every senior figure working in British espionage under suspicion, George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is asked to come out of enforced retirement to flush out and expose the enemy agent before any more lasting damage is inflicted.
Swedish director Alfredson might have seemed an odd choice at first to helm this culturally very British spy novel adaptation, though he had already proven his skill at the drawn-out and creeping tension-build and maintaining a consistently chilly atmosphere in his breakthrough vampire drama Let the Right One In. This talent for maintaining an all-encompassing, uncomfortable and uneasy atmosphere is what he puts to extremely good use in bringing to life the detail-oriented, intelligence-fuelled and emotionally dead world of Cold War spycraft.
The casting of this sizeable ensemble is faultless, with Gary Oldman delivering the low-key performance of his career as Smiley. He may be a man of few words, but he doesn’t really need to speak often when he’s got the art of communicating through sitting perfectly still and subtly altering his facial expression down to such a fine art. So much of the film is about Smiley sitting, listening and watching others, and it’s difficult to imagine another filmmaker imbuing someone slowly taking off their shoes for a final confrontation with such fragile tension. If we’re being picky he’s probably a bit too in shape and full-haired to be le Carré’s Smiley as written, but sometimes an actor is able to communicate a character’s essential essence despite physical differences. Others in the film’s impressive cast all have their moments to impress over the course of the film, but those worthy of particular note are Colin Firth as the charismatic Bill Haydon (“Tailor”), Mark Strong as agent-in-hiding Jim Prideaux, Benedict Cumberbatch as Smiley’s confidant Peter Guillam and John Hurt, who was once considered to play Smiley, but is much better suited as the cantankerous, barking head of The Circus, “Control”.
Though it’s an exceptionally well-made spy film, where Tinker Tailor really hits the mark is as a commentary on the futility of war. It takes le Carré’s novel and, aside from a bit of plot streamlining, presents things as they were on the page, with the spy-writer-extraordinaire’s well-researched dissertation on dying world superpowers fully intact. Every character is on edge as the investigation to find the Soviet mole within the British secret service progresses – the paranoia of the Cold War and threat of an enemy gaining the upper hand is perfectly communicated through subtle characterisation, with every member of The Circus looking as though they’re rotting from the inside out, even those with a misplaced air of confidence about their plans and future prospects, such as Toby Jones’ Percy Alleline (“Tinker”), are in reality teetering over a cliff edge.
The film’s stark visual style paired with Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s economic adapted screenplay highlight this near-constant sense of unease, keeping us at arm’s length from everyone we follow, never allowed to really know anybody. We watch these once-powerful men from afar, sitting and slowly crumbling in bleak, frigid offices and dank hotel rooms. We are given just enough information to make our own judgements on which shade of grey the key players are operating in, about what may be going through the heads of this group of decrepit spies, but not quite enough to plot the exact course the film will take. Smiley is always one step ahead of the viewer in his investigations, and marvelling at the way his mind works when all the pieces of the puzzle finally slot into place is part of the fun. Even after watching the film multiple times and reading its source novel, you can still find yourself struggling to keep up with his brilliant powers of deduction and just how he connects the dots to ultimately identify the traitor.
It’s not a completely unemotional film; Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam’s personal life outside intelligence work is fleetingly glimpsed and, in a rare moment of levity, Smiley reminisces with retired researcher Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke), showing us happier times at the Circus during a raucous office new year’s party. This scene is revisited and re-contextualised during the film’s finale, including a heartbreaking use of Julio Inglesias’ “La Mer” over the final wrapping-up montage, symbolising long friendships ending cruelly and a handful of pleasant memories being forever tainted by the unforgivable actions of a few.
One question remains after watching this latest, most meticulous and best adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: a decade on from its critical acclaim and moderate box office success, where is the follow-up? Le Carré wrote two more books in the “Karla Trilogy”, “The Honourable Schoolboy” and “Smiley’s People”, and many more stories where his bespectacled spymaster made major and minor appearances. Surely it can’t just be about waiting for an opening in Benedict Cumberbatch’s hectic schedule, can it?