John Le Carré once quipped that adapting one of his novels into a film was like “taking a cow and boiling it down to an Oxo cube”. With Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, director Tomas Alfredson has come remarkably close to doing just that, condensing the proverbial cow into, at minimum, a large box of gravy granules.
George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a retired MI6 agent recruited by higher powers to investigate the possibility of a long-standing mole existing within the upper echelons of the British Secret Service – or the ‘Circus’, as it is known on the inside. The list of potential candidates eventually boils down to five possibilities – Tinker (Toby Jones), Tailor (Colin Firth), Soldier (Ciaran Hinds), Poorman (David Dencik), and Beggerman (Smiley himself).
A brooding atmosphere of espionage encapsulates the stunning performances of the ensemble cast. Gary Oldman’s lead as Smiley would steal the show were it not for Mark Strong, Tom Hardy and in particular Benedict Cumberbatch, whose turns as their respective characters are as close to perfect as conceivably possible. Wrapped in Alfredson’s chilling and collected visuals, the film is a gripping spectacle fuelled with fierce dialogue exchanges and calculated moments of tension and violence. Rarely do you see such an emphasis on the spoken word and the subtle facial expression – Alfredson allows his actors plenty of scope to perform their roles and it pays off tenfold, each portrayal oozes class. The screenplay is also surprisingly funny in parts, with numerous laughs dispersed throughout the first half.
Le Carré’s novels lend themselves to the aforementioned qualities, rather than more cinematic plaudits. Alfredson has clearly taken this fully on-board, opting to refrain from injecting many film narrative techniques, thus staying very faithful to the source. While this is a noble approach, it doesn’t necessarily utilise the medium to full effect, i.e. the film’s inevitable revelation is relatively low-key – a little extra drama, maybe just a dash of Hollywood, might have made it more emotional and gripping for the viewer.
If I were to pick a hole in the film’s production, which strays close to faultless, it would be the over-use of the tracking pan shot. Often a steady camera can be more effective, as its notable in Alfredson’s previous film Let The Right One In – a bigger budget tends to mean more innovative camerawork, but sometimes less can be more. Regardless, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy looks and sounds wonderful from start to finish.
There are certain films that make you want to drop your current profession and take up a new, more thrilling, more cinematic lifestyle – this is one of them. Chances are it will make you spend several days checking your flat for bugs and scanning crowds for potential double agents, trusting no-one but yourself. If that’s not one of the hallmarks of an impressive film, then cinema has lost its ability to provide fantastic escapism. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not a perfect film, but it’s hard to see how Alfredson could have done it better without straying into more mainstream territory. A fantastic adaptation and a stimulating cinematic experience, this is one not to be missed. Expect Oscar-talk to continue right through to the awards season, particularly in the acting and directing categories.