A complex spy thriller that treats audiences as intelligent human beings? Surely this must be the product of some latent 20th century madness. In fact, that’s exactly what it is, but there is more method than madness in this superior thriller.
John le Carré’s 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was partly based on the experiences of the author, a former employee of Britain’s MI5 and MI6 and working alongside the traitors that were exposed as part of the Cambridge Five scandals in the 1960s. When those events outed his identity to the Soviets, coupled with the success of le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, he abandoned his real name of David Cornwall and became a full-time writer on his series of successful books.
The intelligent spy thriller became the subject of a 1979 television mini-series, starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley, a character the author has been developing since his debut novel Call of the Dead in 1961. Given the complexity of the character and the stories behind Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, it is little wonder that it has taken over 35 years to reach cinemas.
During the height of the Cold War in 1973, Control (John Hurt), the head of British Intelligence (or “The Circus” after its Piccadilly Circus location) sends operative Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary, where the operation goes wrong and his is shot by the Soviets. Control and his right-had man George Smiley (Gary Oldman) are forced out, as Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) and Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) ascending to their former positions based on the dubious intelligence known as “Witchcraft”. However, when Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) alleges that there is a high-ranking mole in the Circus, Smiley is brought out of retirement to uncover the spy inside.
The thing that is immediately obvious about this very smart script from the late Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan (The Debt) is that great pains have been taken in not trying to update the film for the modern era. Indeed, even when the novels first came out, Smiley was seen as a kind of anti-James Bond, and despite the increasingly “realistic” Bond films in Casino Royale and its sequels, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy remains grounded in bureaucratic sensibilities and procedural drama. This is greatly aided by the look of the film, which director Alfredson has (perhaps flippantly) commented that he aimed to look like an “old man’s foreskin”. While we didn’t have a colour swatch sample handy, there is a desaturated look that pervades the film, one that simultaneously drains the film of the complications of emotions and heightens tensions with its almost clinical revelations.
The film is an incredibly complex beast, and one that will require audience attention for the duration of its lean two hours. A story so complicated that it took a 7-part TV series to tell is naturally abbreviated for the purposes of a feature film, but none of this feels anything less than whole. There will, of course, be times when viewers will be completely lost, and the pace of the film is such that it does not allow for slackers to still be pondering a scene that happened a lifetime of five minutes ago. Alfredson’s film moves at a cracking pace, and this is turn creates one of the greatest strengths of the film in its immediacy of danger and drama walking hand-in-hand.
Conversely, Oldman sits at the heart of the film in an immensely restrained stillness. Even with Smiley’s complex history, he is one that was described by le Carré as “one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth.” So too is Oldman innocuous enough to be overlooked in rooms full of powerful personalities, including terrific performances by Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciarán Hinds and the fabulously aristocratic Colin Firth, commanding every bit of his royal bearing from his Oscar-winning turn in The King’s Speech. Yet Oldman is also impossible to look away from when he is on screen, be he actively investigating or merely sitting and contemplating.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy demands your whole brain, and rewards those willing to be patient with each layer as it unpeels before wrapping itself around the subsequent layers. Following his success with Let the Right One In, Alfredson has shown that he is not only a master of creating mood, but in filling it with substance, giving us just enough holes to slowly extract it as the story weaves its way to a satisfying conclusion.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is released in Australia on 19 January 2011 from Universal.