Summer’s over. The days are beginning to shorten, and the leaves are already starting to shrivel on the trees. And in cinemas, the capes, explosions and joie de vivre of the blockbuster season have been replaced by more mature fair, such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – a resolutely low-key thriller with an all-star British cast and lots of leather elbow patches.
Based on the 1974 John le Carré novel of the same title, Tinker’s a film that will bountifully reward those with plenty of patience and an understanding of Cold War politics, and utterly confound those who don’t.
Gary Oldman stars as George Smiley, a retired British intelligence chap who’s dragged back into service to ascertain the identity of a Russian mole who’s infiltrated the halls of MI6 – but who is it? Colin Firth’s suave bicycle rider, Bill Haydon? Ciarán Hinds’ shark-eyed Roy Bland? Toby Jones’ stern Percy Alleline? David Dencik’s jittery Toby Esterhase? Or someone else entirely?
Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s film is a beautifully crafted one, just as his stunning Let The Right One In was, and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s every shot is immaculately framed.
Production design has been attended to with infinite care: the austerity of early-70s London in autumn is captured in a cigarette-stained palette of greens, blues, and the ubiquitous browns of reproduction furniture. Posters warn intelligence workers that “Telephone talk is not secure”; graffitti reminds us that “The future is female”. Just how perfectly the era is captured can’t be overstated – everything from Alberto Iglesias’s woozy jazz score to the luxuriously swooping cars is perfectly judged.
Alfredson invests the film with one or two isolated moments that are seldom seen in political thrillers, and sometimes unexpectedly funny: the incursion of a honey bee in a luxury car, for example, or the abrupt and faintly surreal mercy killing of an owl in a classroom.
And then there’s that star-laden cast mentioned earlier. You probably haven’t seen a British film with quite so many familiar faces since the last Harry Potter. Kathy Burke is fantastic in a tiny role, and gives us one, unapologetically profane belly laugh. Tom Hardy is perhaps the most human figure in the piece, playing Ricki Tarr, a spy whose brief fraternisation with a woman in Istanbul gets him into all sorts of trouble. Then there’s Benedict Cumberbatch, whose character, Peter Guillam, faithfully helps Smiley find the bad apple in the British intelligence orchard.
In adapting le Carré’s novel, screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan have created a dense cat’s cradle of a mystery, and this is without doubt one of the most dialogue-heavy, narratively serpentine films to have emerged from our rain-swept shores for many years.
And yet, although peppered with wit and wryly amusing lines, Tinker’s script is, I’d argue, a little too obsessed with political detail for its own good.
That Tinker demands our absolute attention at all times is admirable, even refreshing – and it’s easy to imagine a less assured production would attempt to keep audiences up to speed with explanatory captions or distracting voiceovers – but it’s unfortunate that the film’s intrigue is so dense that its characters struggle to make their presence felt among it all.
Even Oldman, an actor who can typically command an audience with the flicker of an eyelid, plays Smiley with such granite-faced seriousness that it’s impossible to identify with him, and the same is true of the film’s other characters. There’s one particular scene, in which Cumberbatch’s Guillam attempts to smuggle an important file out of MI6’s offices, that comes loaded with the requisite tension, but it’s a rare moment in what is frequently a blank-eyed poker game of a movie.
As a piece of filmmaking, and as an evocation of a particular moment in history, it’s easy to understand why some reviewers have piled Tinker high with praise and five star ratings. Indeed, the grown-up portion of my tiny mind marvels at the careful manner in which Alfredson has constructed this thriller.
At the same time, another part of my brain cries out for a character to truly care for, a touch of genuine, relatable humanity among the expense of dapper grey suits and side-partings. Even the film’s sporadic gunshots dribble from the speakers with the muted tone of a hardbound book closing, as though the film is simply too grandly intellectual to stoop to the kind of audience-thrilling ballistics heard in Hollywood thrillers.
It’s an emotional coolness that ultimately serves as the film’s undoing in its concluding scenes; what could have been a stirring denouement instead comes across as a drab disclosure of facts.
Tinker is a film that, for this writer, holds the audience at arm’s length. Its whodunnit element will keep you intrigued, but the lack of personality in its stiff-lipped, ensemble of characters strip it of drama or emotional gravity.
Although aimed at a different set of filmgoers, Tinker isn’t dissimilar to some effects-laden summer blockbusters: it’s perfectly tailored and technically outstanding, yet at the same time, emotionally unsatisfying.