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When you think of the 1970s which images pop into your head? Glittery disco balls or flared trousers and tank tops, perhaps? There is a flipside to such rose-tinted recollections as the Seventies were also a time of drab brown interiors, too-tight suits and poorly chosen hair-cuts. All these latter items pop up in ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,’ where the main characters might easily pass for corporate middle-managers instead of MI6 operatives, which they actually are. When they are not holding high level meetings, rich in double-talk, they can be found downstairs leering over the pretty new blonde in the office.
This is the world created by author John Le Carré and it is a complete antidote to the hi-jinks and sexiness of Ian Fleming’s super-suave James Bond. Here, a complicated network of deceit and assassination is masked under a veneer of ordinariness. In this version of the British secret service, or ‘the Circus’ as its employees prefer to call it, you could be getting drunk on punch at the Christmas party one evening, then lying dead in the woods with a bullet in your back the next.
At the outset of ‘Tinker, Tailor…’ the Circus ringmaster, otherwise known as ‘Control’ (John Hurt,) is ousted from his seat in the boardroom when a mission in Budapest goes wrong and an agent is shot. Also forced into early retirement is George Smiley (Gary Oldman), the closest we get to a hero in these parts. Smiley is not out in the cold for long. When rumours persist of a mole at the very top of the intelligence service he is brought back on a mission to flush out the traitor. Smiley’s exclusion from the Circus works both for and against him.
Helpfully, the identity of the mole has been narrowed down to one of just four men although things remain far from simple. Smiley turns to the only colleagues that he can trust, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch, owner of the worst haircut in the film) and bee-keeping retiree Mendel (Roger Lloyd Pack.) The trio’s pursuit of the mole involves an AWOL spy (Tom Hardy) and Smiley’s unseen Soviet nemesis known only as Karla. To delve further into the plot would be self-defeating as this is a jigsaw puzzle of a film whose creators are grasping tightly on to the corner pieces. You will need to concentrate to follow the multiple story strands and best take a friend with whom you can have a post-film discussion afterwards.
Even if you both get completely lost it does not really matter as ‘Tinker, Tailor…’ will still be a high quality watch. In common with the recent film adaptation of ‘One Day,’ a Scandinavian director has been drafted in to give an outsider’s take on a peculiarly British tale. Tomas Alfredson, a Swede, previously brought us the excellent vampire thriller ‘Let the Right One In.’ Alfredson’s attention to detail in ‘Tinker, Tailor…’ is joyous with the director making the most of every little nuance. Even the buttering of a piece of toast is imbued with significance.
The movie is resplendent in visual novelty thanks to Alfredson and his collaborator, the cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema. They have clearly put a great deal of thought into how they can get the best out of every shot. They even slip in a sly nod to Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’ which is one of the best films about spying, or at least voyeurism, ever made.
This is a two hour version of a three hundred plus page book (the BBC version was six episodes long) so naturally the plot has been made a little pacier with some neat narrative economy. Some scenes are set up in just a sentence. Happily, none of the intelligence (pardon the pun) of Le Carré’s vision has been lost and words still speak much louder than actions. This remains a very low-key spy thriller, where the stakes are high but there is an overwhelming air of matter-of-factness about the whole enterprise. Even the climatic revelation of the mole is handled with a notable modesty.
When it comes to the film’s cast, ‘Tinker Tailor…’ borders on the ridiculous reading like a roll call during a fire evacuation at the BAFTAS. Familiar faces abound, from Colin Firth to Mark Strong and Toby Jones to Stephen Graham. This being a film set in a man’s world there are minimal roles for women but Kathy Burke pops in to do some scene stealing as a nostalgic ex-employee of the service.
The biggest weight rests on the shoulders of Gary Oldman as George Smiley. With the ghost of Alec Guinness casting a long shadow over the character after he played him in both the BBC’s version of the story and its follow up ‘Smiley’s People,’ there was always going to be a lot to live up to. Oldman does a brilliant job. From behind his NHS spectacles, his Smiley appears quietly contemplative but we know that his mind must be whirring away like a computer as he probes the organisation that has turned against him. When he is victim of a second, more personal, treachery later in the film his wounded soul is exposed in his face for a moment and we realise that he is human after all.
‘Tinker, Tailor…’ is one of the finest films of the year and will hopefully suck audiences into its sedate take on the espionage business. Normally, I balk at the idea of a sequel but if Oldman wished to don his glasses again for a second turn as Smiley, with the same crew on board, then you would not hear any complaints from this quarter.
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth, Gary Oldman, Mark Strong, Simon McBurney, Tom Hardy
Runtime: 127 mins
Release: 16th September