When Alec Guinness starred in 1979’s BBC television adaptation of John Le Carre’s cold war espionage novel the action had the topical immediacy of a contemporary drama. 30 years on it’s a period piece and despite its Swedish director Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the most beautifully British slice of cinema I’ve seen in quite a while.
The plot as it stands at first seems rather straightforward. After George Smiley is dismissed from the British intelligence service (here called ‘The Circus’) he is unexpectedly called back in order to smoke out a suspected Soviet mole. The suspects are all very high ranking and in an ingenious piece of production design can usually be found meeting in a sound proof vault, brassily daubed in period glory. It’s a melting pot of tension and secrets and one which throughout the film frames Smiley’s investigation. I’d like to leave you to find out about the intricacies (of which there are many) of the plot itself however, so the less said about it the better really. Rest assured you’ll be kept guessing right until the end.
But what many people will end up buying their tickets for is the cast. As stunning an ensemble as one is ever likely to see in a cinema, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is littered with British greats. Some more established and some less. John Hurt plays Control, the head (and soon enough ex-head) of The Circus with all of the growling, enigmatic intensity at his not inconsiderable disposal. Colin Firth’s charismatic Bill Haydon is depicted with a consummate class that by now from Firth seems effortless. Toby Jones’s Percy Alleline is a controversial figure who the highly underrated actor brings to life with the most aggressive of demeanours and the Scottishest of accents, whilst Ciaran Hinds rounds off the top rankers and suspects as Roy Bland in a somewhat more underwritten role, but he does well.
It is two of the younger contingent on show however who equip themselves excellently and almost steal the show. The superb Tom Hardy as outcast Ricki Tarr and Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam carry much of the story and give blistering performances. This does inexorably seem to be the year of Hardy’s life as he is fast shaping up not only to be one of Hollywood’s biggest stars but also to be one of my favourite actors (anyone who remains unconvinced should go and see Bronson immediately for one of the best performances of the last few years).
However at the centre of all this we have Gary Oldman’s stoic and reserved George Smiley. A figure that may not immediately fit the bill of a spy in the sense we are used to. He is almost silent for the first act of the film and has the type of amorphous face and unimposing presence befitting a character much less important and ultimately much less interesting than Smiley in fact turns out to be. When someone is this unassuming however when they do decide to come to life it means all the more. There is nothing at all flashy about Oldman’s emotionally closed portrayal of Le Carre’s most beloved character, but he delivers a devastatingly brilliant performance here. It was a risk centring a film around such an unconventional protagonist but it’s a risk that pays off handsomely.
Director Tomas Alfredson (much like Smiley) finds glamour or overt excitement in nothing, lingering no more over deaths than on garishly patterned wallpaper or one of Smiley’s numerous early morning swims. Things just happen. Deaths are portrayed as having no great importance, nor does the camera linger or ever seem to point out how horrible this all is. There is a cold, callous brutality to everything whether it be relationships, deeply suppressed emotions or indeed the ever looming spectre of death. When one character must break all evident ties with his homosexuality in order to be better immune from blackmail, we simply get a 30 second scene in which his boyfriend storms out and he has a quiet moment to himself. It is never again mentioned but neither is it completely glossed over. Everyone involved definitely has their problems, everyone has sacrificed and everyone lives a facade. Terrible things just occur all the time. Emotions have their place, but throughout this place is almost entirely out of the eyes of their peers and for the audience in the cinema it is almost entirely off screen.
This air of emotionally restrained paranoia is all pervasive throughout. Many people see a niggling problem as being the brevity with which much of the plot is dispensed. They often cite that the mole is unmasked in completely unceremonious fashion, with little fanfare or build-up (save Smiley tensely eating some fantastically British Trebor Mints). This supposedly climactic event is dealt with as another incidental occurrence devoid of special meaning or cause for alarm. While this may not serve our conventional cinematic instincts all that well, it is a finale that is completely of a piece.
The plot itself – as thrilling and complex as it is – pales in comparison with the triumph of atmosphere that is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Alfredson’s staid and understated direction is a positively beautiful piece of mood and moderation. Excellently shot and artistically lit by Hoyte Van Hoytema with an eye for the traditional televisual 70’s aesthetic, it’s a world of fag ash, drab overcoats, middle aged men, compromise, routine incidental horrors and small, dilapidated industrial units. Short of a wonderfully crafted vignette about Ricky Tarr and his love for a Russian defector there is never even a hint of James Bond. Everything is a concession, everyone is overworked and haggard and as is brusquely summed up by Kathy Burke’s retired agent, everyone is “seriously under fucked”.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is quite simply stunning. If you leave feeling a little non-plussed don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that that is necessarily a bad thing. Much like the first time I saw There Will be Blood, I left the screening feeling slightly underwhelmed and oddly downbeat. With a little introspection however I decided that what I’d actually just seen was a triumph of cinema that was so unexpectedly different that my usual cinematic instincts need not apply. Second time round (as with Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece) I’m sure I’ll finish Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy feeling as ecstatic as I feel about it now. It is a truly unique work and one that I hope will be getting much consideration around awards season indeed. With a bit of luck come February we’ll be hearing the increasingly frequent cries of ‘the British are coming’ all over again, but looking at the talent on display here, I think it true to say that they never went away.
– Ross Jones-Morris