In Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

by Patrick Kershaw on 10/09/2011

By Patrick Kershaw

From the director of the much lauded Let the Right One In, comes this fresh adaptation of the best selling John Le Carré novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy . A worthy successor to both the novel and the stellar television series starring Alec Guiness, Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation is an exercise in understated and thrilling story-telling.
It is 1975 and the upper echelons of MI6, referred to as “The Circus,” seem as suspicious of each other as they are the KGB and their plenipotentiary Karla.

With the maverick “Control,” toppled from the top spot, his underlings take command of MI6, each one more unctuous and crafty-looking than the last. Control (played with compelling vehemence by John Hurt) is convinced there is a mole within the Circus  and dispatches Mark Strong’s Jim Prideux to Budapest to investigate. Prideux is betrayed and following his dismissal Control expires not long after. Gary Oldman’s George Smiley, is brought out of his forced retirement to hunt down the Mole from the outside, a Herculean task that is both personal and professional.

With all this name dropping going on to say that this film has an all-star cast would be a crushingly droll understatement. There are more thespians here than you could shake a stick at and each of them inhabits their character with mesmerising conviction.

Neither the novel nor the television series were famous for their pop-corn accessibility and Alfredson has stayed true to the source material in so far as this is most definitely a film for a switched on audience. With so much blockbuster comic book dross and a sprinkling of over-hyped romantic comedy dominating our multiplexes this will be one of the few adult films of the year. Much like his brooding take on vampirism, Alfredson uses inference and subtle visual clues to layer the story rather than relying on exposition-heavy dialogue.

With the entire Circus implicated mid-way through the film it has anyone not familiar with the story guessing right up until the end. Facing such narrative density and with so many characters circling round each other it could be easy to become lost or befuddled. However Alfredson’s subtle embellishment of character and assured direction means he manages to guide you down a beaten but twisting path to comprehension. It is also satisfying that not one of the actors goes underused.

In essence this film is a spy-thriller from another era, by eschewing Bond style camp-villainy or even visceral Bourne action but the tension feels far more affecting for the absence of “action”. Thus, when we do get a glimpse into the more violent side of the world of espionage it is all the more shocking.

Despite the sobriety of the context and the apparent mirthless nature of the incongruously named Mr. Smiley the script is nevertheless peppered with darkly humorous touches and interactions.  The cinematography and misé-en-scene create a wonderful sense of place, from the slightly flared suits right down to the branding on a packet of mints.

My only gripe with this film is something of a contradictory criticism. Though I loved it for its wonderful encapsulation of Cold War paranoia and old fashioned espionage I was, nevertheless, left with a hankering for a more contemporary and relevant tale. Given the climate of extraordinary renditions, unseemly deals made with disreputable governments it seems the world is crying out for a John Le Carré of the post-9/11 era. However until the media decide they’ve grown tired of Jack Bauer and his ilk I suggest you go and enjoy this master-class of an atmospheric thriller. Oh, and you might as well pick up a copy of the book and the T.V series too. After all winter is drawing in.

Patrick has awarded Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy In four Torches of Truth

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Dan September 10, 2011 at 11:54

I think I will have to see this film for two reasons:
1) I have never managed to get through the book or TV series
2) I want to support this sort of film-making

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Daniel Green September 18, 2011 at 18:19

The John le Carré of the post 9/11 era is…John le Carré – check out his 2008 novel ‘A Most Wanted Man’, as post 9/11 paranoia is what you’ll get in spades. Agree with you on most points, but I thank that ‘Tinker, Tailor…’ is as relevant now as it has ever been.

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