Part of the appeal of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was brought home to me by something that novelist John le Carre said about his most enduring creation (and this story’s central protagonist), George Smiley. “He sees a lot and can do nothing about it. And seeing a lot is very painful”.
In bringing le Carre’s novel to the big screen, Director Tomas Alfredson ensures that his audience also “sees a lot” and does so in such a way that it seems as though almost every frame is loaded with some degree of significance. However, for the audience (unlike Smiley) seeing a lot is far from painful. Instead, it is an absolute joy, as the film’s complex narrative of secrets and lies within the Secret Intelligence Service unfolds against the flawless backdrop of a perfectly realised 1970s Britain.
The story starts with Control (John Hurt), the head of British Intelligence, sending agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary to bring out a General who has intimated that he has information of vital importance. However, the mission is a disaster when Prideaux is shot, and in the ensuing political fall-out, Control and his deputy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) are forced into retirement. Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) takes over as Control, having established his credentials by delivering highly valuable information from a Soviet spy, which he plans to share with the Americans on a quid pro quo basis. Meanwhile, Smiley is summoned by a senior civil servant to covertly investigate allegations from a British Agent that there is a mole at the top of the Secret Service. Smiley has his suspicions, and also doubts the veracity of Alleline’s Soviet source.
When I was leaving the cinema after seeing this at the end of last year, I overheard a punter joking that the British lighting industry was obviously dead if this movie was anything to go by, while his partner admitted that she was baffled by the events that had just unfolded. I couldn’t agree with the former, as I felt that the film’s dour shades perfectly reflected the story’s sombre themes of suspicion and betrayal. However, I did have some sympathy for the latter, as this is a film that makes few concessions to an audience looking to be led by the hand through its complex plot.
With minimal exposition, few narrative signposts and a habit of casually divulging important information in the middle of conversations that quickly move on, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy makes the sorts of demands of its audience that few mainstream films do. Nevertheless, give this film the time and attention it deserves, and you’ll be rewarded with one of the most engrossing British spy films of all time.
As he demonstrated with Let The Right One In, Alfredson has the knack of convincingly setting extraordinary events within mundane context. Here, we see some seemingly very ordinary men and women operating within a world of secrets and information so jealously guarded that constant paranoia is the accepted way of thinking; a state of mind that is worn on the face of almost every character who makes up the higher echelons of the British Intelligence Service. And what faces they are, Alfredson’s camera eagerly exploring the lines and furrows of the likes of John Hurt, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, Mark Strong and Colin Firth so closely that we learn more about them from their expressions than we do from their words.
This is especially so of Gary Oldman’s George Smiley, Oldman playing him like some sort of human x-ray machine. His eyes often fill the screen, every flicker enhancing the impression that Smiley reads and understands people to a greater extent than most. He often says very little, but still gives the impression of a razor sharp mind, as well as the repressed emotions and buried hurt of a singular individual who dares to offer neither judgement nor trust. To convey all this in a performance that is so still and so restrained really is a remarkable piece of acting.
In a pivotal scene, he and Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) are discussing Karla, the head of Soviet Intelligence. Tired and slightly drunk, Smiley recounts how he once met Karla when tasked with the job of persuading him to defect to the West. Smiley says that he failed because Karla is a fanatic, and that is why he knows he can be beaten, as all fanatics hold a secret doubt.
In this moment of vulnerability, Oldman really lets us see who Smiley is; a man who holds no such doubts, because he sees the world and everyone in it exactly as they are, making him somebody who is too pragmatic and world weary to hold the kind of ideals that could ever be threatened. This enables him to do the job that he does, to witness betrayals both personal and professional and sometimes even use people himself, all the while retaining the semblance of a good man. It’s a moment that brilliantly conveys the pain le Carre spoke of, Alfredson’s lens enhancing a sadness that is already evident behind the thick frames of Smiley’s spectacles.
All of these performances are supported by a story and script that gives immense depth to every character, even those with whom we’re only briefly acquainted. A romantic subplot involving British agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) and Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkov), a Soviet operative desperate to defect is genuinely affecting; all the more so because of the brevity with which it is resolved.
Then there are the devastating consequences on Guillam’s private life when Smiley warns him he may be under suspicion from colleagues, a distraught Guillam having to ask his male lover to move out of the flat they share together. Such scenes manage to deliver maximum impact with the greatest of economy, and it is a testament to the skill with which Peter Straughan and the sadly departed Bridgette O’Connor have constructed their screenplay that these things matter to us without distracting from the central plot.
In many ways, this is a spy movie that succeeds because we see the protagonists as vulnerable and flawed individuals, much like us. Its story is about international espionage and Cold War intrigue, but its concerns of trust, suspicion and sacrifice are our own. It’s about as far removed from the high octane approach of ‘the other fella’ as you could imagine, eschewing broad brush strokes and instead working its canvas with precision and restraint.
The period detail is flawless, from the wallpaper that adorns the walls of Control’s office, to the brown and grey suits that move through rooms clouded in cigarette smoke. The cinematography is superb, enhancing the British noir stylings of the film’s design, while portraying a world of drabness and frayed edges in that hyper real way that only cinema can ever really achieve.
In fact, this is a movie where every aspect of the production is perfectly attuned, as Alfredson’s direction, the actor’s performances, and a superb script combine to imbue every scene, every glance, and every verbal exchange with possible meaning; some of it important, some of it not. Either way, all of it is enthralling.
I don’t know if this is it for Gary Oldman and Tomas Alfredson as far as George Smiley is concerned (both have hinted it may not be). Le Carre wrote two sequels to his novel with The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People both furthering the rivalry between Karla and Smiley. There’s something about the way this film ends that feels like the beginning of something else. However, if this is the end for Oldman’s Smiley, then the final scenes provide us with some degree of closure, a montage set to Julio Iglesias singing a disco version of La Mer. Like almost everything else about this film, it is exquisitely judged.
There are plenty of extras to get through, although their quality varies. The highlights are a wonderful 30 minute interview with John le Carre (although the sound doesn’t pick up the interviewer, meaning that you can barely hear the questions) and a commentary from Alfredson and Oldman. Another strong feature are the interviews with several members of the cast, where it is clear just how much of a labour of love this was for most of them.
There are a number of featurettes on various aspects of the production although much of the content is taken from the more extensive interviews found elsewhere. A Sky Movies special is more of a throwaway piece of fluff, along with a featurette that covers the UK premiere.
Finally, the opening two chapters from the other two books in le Carre’s Karla trilogy are included (as audio books read by Michael Jayston) along with the usual teaser and trailer.
You can rent or buy Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy at Blockbuster.co.uk.