“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 Whether it is Mark Strong’s withdrawn, heartbroken Prideaux, Tom Hardy’s out of depth and lovelorn Ricki Tarr, or Benedict Cumberbatch’s principled yet closeted Peter Guillam, we go with them on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 their pain.
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 by his 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.
Each 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 perhaps 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 and 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 are 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 the 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.