Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)
Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s classic spy novel was an atmospheric, tense affair, and was definitely one of the highlights of 2011. It’s not hard to see why, with the chill, gloomy atmosphere of the secret service in the 1970s being brilliantly recreated and top-notch acting across the board. Former MI6 agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is re-recruited into ‘The Circus’ to root out a Soviet mole who has been operating at the very top for years. A who’s who of British acting talent help (and hinder) him along the way, as he sifts through simmering tensions in his attempt to find the truth. Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth and Tom Hardy are among the star names, and great performances, along with a brilliantly ratcheted up sense of tension, speed the film along. It’s not hard to see why it was lavished with praise on release (also coming 4th in Impact’s Films of 2011) and why Gary Oldman is in with an outside chance of mantelpiece decoration.
One thing that Tomas Alfredson’s take on John le Carré’s novel achieves brilliantly is subtlety. This is a spy film like no other. Where the Bond films rely on suspension of disbelief, a bevy of beauties and a tonne of action sequences, this adaptation trades on small gestures, glances across a room, and an overwhelmingly chill atmosphere that only serves to highlight the differences between the claustrophobic world of spying and the world on the outside. Secondly, it is hard to fault any of the actors, supporting or otherwise, in Tinker Tailor. Gary Oldman is a master of restraint as George Smiley, with his hidden emotions only sometimes visible through his cold, almost cruel exterior. Tom Hardy, Toby Jones and Benedict Cumberbatch are all brilliant, however I feel it is Mark Strong and Colin Firth who stand out as Jim Prideaux and Bill Haydon, conveying the loneliness of the spy and their constant struggle to regain humanity brilliantly (a schoolyard scene involving Prideaux is perfectly played). Also, there is always room for character development to come through – the hints of a relationship between two central characters are very well done, with an effective closing scene involving them. The frequent flashbacks to an office Christmas party, whether to reveal a certain element of the plot or to develop the characters, also work brilliantly with the tone of the film. In addition, the film really captures the essence of 1970s London, and especially the world of the spy, full of drab browns and grey, indistinct and murky, with everyone constantly on the lookout, unable to relax, looking for the truth amidst the gloom. With all this going for it, the film certainly deserves recognition come BAFTA night, where it is nominated in 11 categories.
Although Tinker Tailor is overall a solid viewing experience, it does have its faults. It could be said that there are almost too many classy actors in the film for its own good, and as a result many of them get short-changed, having only a few minutes of real screen time in which to show off their respective characters. Benedict Cumberbatch is, I feel, underused compared to his role in the book, but he still puts in a solid performance. Also, though the film sticks pretty faithfully to its source, I would say that even though the tension is very well built up towards the end, the actual unmasking of the mole feels strangely muted and is the one moment of the film that could have done with a bit more dramatic emphasis. I also feel that this adaptation should not be taken in conjunction with the book – it should be viewed separately, because both excel in different areas, and to be constantly comparing the two could detract from what is a thought-provoking, well-acted piece of filmmaking that is deserving of recognition.
The special features are a little thin on the ground, with a commentary from Oldman and Alfredson to accompany the film, along with some average deleted scenes, a few of which were very wisely left on the cutting-room floor. However, there is an interesting interview with author John Le Carré regarding the inspiration for the novel and his own views on the secret service he was himself a part of, in which he also suggests that the world of the spy is not so different from our own. That alone is worth a watch.