Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: something’s rotten in the state of bakelite

It’s a risky enterprise, condensing as knotty a book as John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy down into a two hour film, particularly given the existence of the universally admired BBC adaptation from thirty years ago, in which Alec Guinness made an indelible impression as the urbane intelligence agent George Smiley, but Tomas Alfredson’s new version would appear on first viewing to be a minor miracle: it’s uncompromisingly intelligent, confident in its use of the elisions and flashbacks necessary to compress the material into the required time-frame, startlingly convincing in its recreation of its drab 1970s setting and best of all quiet, measured and restrained for most of its running time. Don’t turn up to this spy film expecting Bond or Bourne style action sequences, chases and adrenaline-pumping fights – many of the scenes here involve shabby-looking men discussing arcane points of intelligence protocol in brown rooms while sipping on unappetising looking cups of tea. The technology on display is decidedly unflashy, and is mainly fashioned from bakelite, and James Bond wouldn’t be seen dead in some of the pootling little cars these agents use to get about in. Nevertheless, if you’re prepared to pay attention this is in places as gripping a thriller as I’ve seen in a long time.

I’m not sure I’m up to the job of precising Le Carré’s labyrinthine plot, but in very general terms Tinker Tailor is about the attempts by George Smiley to uncover a mole who has been compromising British security by feeding intelligence to the Russians. The spymaster Control (John Hurt, whose haggard features and booze-addled cunning fit the scenario a treat) has narrowed the identity of the double agent down to one of five men at the highest level of the security services, and Smiley is unofficially brought out of retirement to catch the mole. Gary Oldman gets what might be seen as the futile task of following Alec Guinness in the part of Smiley, but it must be said that he’s pretty successful, largely because he’s able to exploit the reined-in and ever calculating nature of the character. I swear Oldman doesn’t actually utter more than half a dozen lines of dialogue in the whole first half of the film, but you feel his presence throughout and when he starts making his moves his controlled and decisive acts of bravery ring true. Smiley’s far from an emotionless automaton however, and we see just enough of his backstory and personal failures to be able to generate considerable empathy with him.

This unusually subtle and considered characterisation also extends to the many supporting roles in the film. Nobody here comes off as a cartoon or a cliché, and while there are occasional verbal and physical outbursts they’re always earned and laid-in carefully. The cast of this film is actually pretty extraordinary – Colin Firth can presumably pick any part he wants these days, but here he settles for a smallish role as the caddish Bill Hayden, and you also get top turns from Toby Jones, Tom Hardy and Kathy Burke. Other than Oldman, the two actors that really stand out for me are Benedict Cumberbatch as the nervy Peter Guillam (the scene where he’s sent to retrieve a confidential file is nail-bitingly tense) and Mark Strong as the loyal and fearless Jim Prideaux, who is put through a harrowing ordeal in the line of duty, and comes through it with dignity and humanity intact.

Tinker Tailor will probably be in line for a whole bunch of awards come the new year, and will probably deserve to snag a few. This is the kind of thoughtful, complex thriller they used to make in the 70s and it’s bound to repay repeat viewings with interest. Go and see it, but don’t be munching your popcorn too loudly.

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