Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

3 Feb

The BBC’S 1979 seven part adaptation of John le Carré’s novel Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy, starring Alec Guinness, raised the bar and set the subsequent benchmark for the spy thriller genre. The BBC did such a swirling, masterful, magnificently epic job, that it’s little wonder that it’s taken 32 years to take the story to the big screen. Thankfully, the delectable team of Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) and scribes le Carré and Peter Straughan deliver in spades, because this is an absorbing, treat of a film.

It’s 1973, the midst of the Cold War and the British secret service is in a state of flux, riven by division, upheaval and change. To make matters worse, a botched snatch job in Budapest exposes the Circus (the intelligence service’s top table) to criticism resulting in Control (John Hurt) and right hand man George Smiley (an introspective Gary Oldman) being forced into retirement. Smiley whiles away his time in forced exile, lacking any meaningful purpose or direction, until a tip off from an apparent rogue agent, Ricki Tarr (the brilliant Tom Hardy), suggests that a Russian mole has infiltrated the Circus. Smiley, tasked with identifying the mole, recruits Tarr’s senior agent Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) to help him untangle the web of deceit and deception that has enveloped the agency.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

It’s an intriguing puzzle and with the Circus seemingly obsessed with a dubious Russian source, codenamed Witchcraft, personal agendas threaten to further complicate matters. De facto Circus head, Percy Allenine (a repugnant Toby Jones), the mysterious Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) and the dashing but conniving Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) are all suspects and as the narrative flits back and forth, each comes under scrutiny only for a fog of misdirection to cast doubt over their guilt.

As Smiley and Guillam unravel the mystery, it becomes apparent that Witchcraft might well be an invention of Moscow and the mythical Karla who is feeding London false intelligence. Effectively, nothing is quite as it seems and whilst everyone is a suspect, the reveal adheres to the old adage that it’s always who you least suspect.

The cast, as expected, excel. Hardy and Cumberbatch, in particular, are outstanding, whilst Oldman is insular and pensive to the extent that Smiley seems to almost lack emotion. Strong and Firth provide fine support, yet Hinds seems marginalised and wasted as Bland. Alfredson too, emerges with credit, instilling some wry humour and Scandinavian bleakness into proceedings.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is an inherently old fashioned, traditional spy thriller and it’s a welcome change of pace from the hectic Bournes and Bonds of late. It’s a character driven piece and as a result the plot bubbles along steadily, slowly but surely engrossing the audience.  In a film so devoid of apparent action the tone is surprisingly tense whilst the twisting narrative demands full attention. It’s intelligent, thoughtful, considered filmmaking that although risks alienating some with its complexity, should be applauded for not merely pandering to the lowest common denominator.


(originally appeared at www.lostinthemultiplex.com)

2 Responses to “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)”


  1. London Evening Standard British Film Awards: 90% spot on « crash/burn - February 7, 2012

    […] If it fails to win the latter, it will in all likelihood lose out to Lynee Ramsey’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, which followed up its baffling success at the BFI London Film Festival and the London Film Critics’ Circle Awards by winning Best Film last night, beating the far superior Shame and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. […]

  2. What if…the Academy weren’t such pussies? How the Oscars should have played out « crash/burn - February 25, 2012

    […] War Horse and The Help (great acting yes, great film, not so much).  Replace them with  Drive, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the hideously overlooked Shame and the line up is immeasurably […]

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