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Huge on period atmosphere and as murkily plotted as its source material, this big-scale European adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 Cold War novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy shows a faithfulness that should fully meet the expectations of the writer’s fans. At the same time, with Swedish director Tomas Alfredson at the helm of his first English language film, one might be pardoned for hoping for a bit of the spookiness of his Let the Right One In or the political passion of le Carré’s The Constant Gardener. Instead this good, old-fashioned square-off between spymasters Karla and George Smiley demonstrates a lot more loyalty than most of its characters. It is one of the few films so visually absorbing, felicitous shot after shot, that its emotional coldness is noticed only at the end, when all the plot twists are unraveled in a solid piece of thinking-man’s entertainment for upmarket thriller audiences.
Loyalty and betrayal are really but perfunctory undercurrents in the dense screenplay by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor, which ensnares the viewer in an electrifying world of bureaucratic spy-dom from the opening scene at London MI6 headquarters, or “the Circus”. A bit like M briefing James Bond in a cluttered newspaper editor’s office, the action gets started when British Intelligence’s numero uno, Control (John Hurt), sends dashing agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) on a dangerous mission to Hungary. He is to meet with a turncoat Russian general who knows the name of a double agent high within their own ranks.
The mission to Budapest is a fiasco and puts an inglorious end to Control’s reign in the Circus, along with the career of his right hand man George Smiley (Gary Oldman). In his gray suit, gray hair and stumbling gait, Smiley looks ready for retirement. But after Control’s death, a sense of duty calls him back to catch the mole that cast a pall on his friend and mentor.
The suspects are cut-out faces taped to chessmen in Control’s shadowy, secret-filled apartment. They are all the Circus’s top brass: the ambitiously dislikable “tinker” Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), suave “tailor” Bill Haydon (Colin Firth, sardonically tossing off all the best dialogue), the solid “soldier” Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), “poor man” Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) and George Smiley himself. Superb characterizations help distinguish the crowded Circus performers, though viewers are kept on their toes with an ever-expanding cast of operatives like the trusted young Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the romantic “scalp hunter”/hit man Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy).
Smiley’s visit to another cast-off colleague, Connie Sachs (a delightfully blowsy, vivid Kathy Burke) puts him on the trail of the Russian spy Polyakov, who turns out to be a key part of the puzzle. Nothing in the plotting is banal or easy to second-guess; on the other hand, nothing is very clear, either, and there’s a moment near the end when overlaid voices start buzzing through Smiley’s head, suggesting he’s almost as confused as the viewer. But all it takes is the patience to hang on till the final scenes, and the chessmen will be made to show their true colors in a quiet pay-off.
Picking up a role on which the great Alec Guinness left his signature in the 1970s when the novel was adapted as a British TV series, Gary Oldman is a cold-blooded, inscrutable Smiley whose unhappy marriage is the only personal thing about him. The scene in which he relives his one meeting with Karla is about as excited as he gets, and yet his rock-solid steadiness in a world of betrayal and his penetrating mind make him a very British kind of hero.
With the Cold War long gone and other problems to worry about on the world political scene, Tinker Tailor risks feeling out of date and superfluous. Alfredson’s solution has been to celebrate the period and its rigidity in a stylish feast of modernism designed by Maria Djurkovic and lit by Hoyte van Hoytema. The look carries over from creative indoor sets like the beehive-walled MI6 conference room to locations in London, Budapest and Istanbul. Shots framed through window panes and sets lit through a constant hazy mist emphasize the spy theme; some shots, like Ricki Tarr’s spying on a bedroom scene in the building across the street, have a Rear Window feel. Alberto Iglesias, who also composed The Constant Gardener score, manages orchestral accompaniment with a sly subtle touch.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Working Title Films, Paradis, Kinowelt
Cast: Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, David Dencik, Ciaran Hinds, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Kathy Burke, William Haddock, Simon McBurney, Stuart Graham
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Screenwriters: Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan, based on the novel by John Le Carré Executive producers: John Le Carré, Peter Morgan, Douglas Urbanski, Debra Hayward, Liza Chasin, Olivier Courson, Ron Halpern
Co-executive producers: Eric Heumann, Wolfgang Braun
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Robyn Slovo
Co-producer: Alexandra Ferguson
Director of photography: Hoyte van Hoytema
Production designer: Maria Djurkovic
Music: Alberto Iglesias
Costumes: Jacqueline Durran
Editor: Dino Jonsatter
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