Skip to content

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

December 22, 2011

written by: Peter Straughan and Bridget O’ Connor
produced by: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner & Robyn Slovo
directed by: Tomas Alfredson
rating: R (for violence, some sexuality/nudity and language)
runtime: 127 min. 
U.S. release date: December 9, 2011 (limited) & January 6, 2012 (wide)
Sitting down to review “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is a daunting task, maybe just as daunting as watching it, so I can only imagine the labor involved in adapting the 1974 British spy novel by John le Carre. The good thing is, the screenwriters and Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (making his English-language debut) didn’t bother modernizing anything or changing much in bringing the material to the big-screen. I mention daunting in the most challenging and rewarding way possible, because this is one of those films that requires every iota of alertness from a viewer. In the end, even if you didn’t completely follow it all (like me), you will come out appreciating that such a cold and calculated thriller with an impeccable cast has been meticulously made.
This is an intense and complex film, one that tests the alertness and comprehension of its audience, which may be a deterrent for those used to gadgets and action in their spy movies. The filmmakers and le Carre (who worked as a spy in the ’50s and ’60s) are more concerned with creating a world that closely resembles the anti-James Bond. In that respect, Alfredson, reuniting with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (they last made the vampire masterpiece, “Let the Right One In”), nails the tone, look, and feel (of course, the art direction and costume design have a lot to do with it as well)  of the cold and paranoid ’70s. Despite the exemplary production on display here and some fine acting, a word of caution may be necessary in approaching “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”. 
It appears I’m not the only one thinking along those lines, apparently Focus Features (along with Working Title, the British production company involved in making this film) has a like-minded approach to the marketing. At the screening I attended, a foldable dossier breaking down the film’s details (film synopsis, definitions of codes and terms, and a hierarchy tree of who plays who and what they do) could be found on each seat. Clear this wasn’t just for souvenir sake. Breezing through that “file” was quite handy and made me feel more prepared as I absorbed the dense story laid out before me. I just wish that seat wasn’t so comfortable.



It has been determined that there is a mole in the Circus, which means that England’s security (and possibly the rest of the world) may be compromised by a double agent working for the Soviets.  Hold on – what is The Circus, you ask? While it’s never mentioned in the film (I’m thankful for zero exposition, but still), the Circus is the code name for the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) located in London, consisting of agents with varying pedigrees and responsibilities. After a mission in Budapest led by Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) is botched,  both the Chief aka Control (John Hurt) and veteran spymaster George Smiley (Gary Oldman) are forced into retirement.  Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) is assigned as the new Chief and has top agents (called officers) Bill Hayden (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) reporting to him. These are cordial gentlemen who are apprehensive and suspicious, as their devout commitment to the agency is challenged. 

During this time, Permanent Undersecretary Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney, “Jane Eyre”) brings back the methodical Smiley, placing him in deep cover in order to weed out the mole. Smiley must maneuver cautiously since his years in the Circus earned a familiarity with these agents that he cannot afford in his investigation. He must look at all of them as potential suspects, including Alleline, in order to ascertain information that will lead to his man. As Smiley visits those who were dismissed from the Circus around the same time he was, like researcher Connie Sachs ( a fantastic Kathy Burke) and personnel clerk Jerry Westerby (Stephen Graham), Lacon also has him look into scalphunter (those assigned to dirty deeds) Ricki Tarr (a lively Tom Hardy) who may have information on a possible mole in a senior position in SIS, as long as protection for him and his lover can be guaranteed. Working closely and covertly with Smiley is Peter Guillam (an excellent Benedict Cumberbatch), who oversees the scalphunters and proves to be a reliable asset. Throughout Smiley’s investigation we see loyalty and trust manipulated, destroyed and threatened, while revelations surface that will have personal and professional ramifications for many spies.
Back in 1979, “Tinker Tailor” was made into a seven-part BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness as Smiley, which only makes it obvious what a chore compressing this film into a little over two hours must have been. As dense as it feels,  screenwriter Peter Straughan, along with his late wife, Bridget O’ Connor, have condensed an impressively taut and engaging story. It’s a certainty that some material was left out and there may even be an extended cut somewhere, but this theatrical release is a fine piece of work as it is. Just as Alfredson deliberately worked on building atmosphere and mood with “Let the Right One In”,  he keenly hones in on select locations and set pieces here that superbly evoke desperation, loneliness and detached isolation.  Complimenting Alfredson nicely is Oscar-nominated composer Alberto Iglesias (who also worked on “The Constant Gardener” another Le Carre adaptation), who produces a haunting and melodic combination of horns, piano, and acoustic guitar that accents the film’s pace in a natural and appropriate manner.
In shaping such mature storytelling (that tastefully includes flashbacks and red herrings) into a feature, Alfredson is fortunate to have such an impressive cast of phenomenal UK actors. Make no mistake, this is Oldman’s film though. He centers the film with incredible restraint in a role that is an amazing example of “less is more”.  Some may think this is an atypical character for Oldman, who is known for high-strung roles (“The Professional” and “The Fifth Element” come to mind), but they are forgetting that this is an actor who’s been showing his formidable range for decades. Watching the scenes where Oldman manipulates Hardy or confronts Firth with such restraint yet razor-sharp intensity will go down in my memory as some of the best scenes of the year. It may seem like Oldman is hiding behind his spectacles and three-piece suit, but there’s an absorbing vibrancy to his characterization of Smiley that leaves quite an impression on an audience. 
“Tinker Tailor  Soldier Spy” is a much more quiet and deliberate motion picture than the marketing lets on, but there’s really no way to prepare viewers for this cold descent into espionage and authentic spy life. As mentioned, you should no what you’re getting into here (something that can be said for any film, actually), but if you’ve been following any of these actors, you kind of already know what you have in store for you. While the film may slog at times, possibly threatening one’s interest and alertness, the fact remains that when a  film is this frame-by-frame gorgeous and showcases such fine talent, any complaints seem petty.  
RATING: ***1/2

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: