Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) Review

A movie review article by: Kelvin Green

Director: Tomas Alfredson
Writers: Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan from the novel by John le Carré

In the bleak days of the Cold War, espionage veteran George Smiley is forced from semi-retirement to uncover a Soviet agent within MI6's echelons.

Two of the most striking aspects of Thomas Alfredson's comma-deficient Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are the splendid cast -- of which more later -- and the frantic pace of the thing. Whereas the BBC took a comfortable seven hours to tell their version of the story, Alfredson hammers his way through in just over two while leaving very little out; he and his crew should be proud of their achievement, as they very nearly pull it off.

Sharp editing and efficient writing result in a film of clipped and rapid scenes -- sometimes the film will switch to a different set of characters and a different location for the sake of just one short line of dialogue -- and as such it is a narrative that demands close attention -- or foreknowledge of the plot -- in order to keep up with developments. It's a brave approach and one worth applauding, as a lesser adaptation would have abridged the story to fit everything into the running time.

That said, the pace does cause a couple of problems. Tom Hardy is brilliant as the scalphunter -- the insider term for the type of spy who gets his hands dirty -- Ricki Tarr, but we don't get to see much of him; I don't want to fill this review with comparisons with the BBC adaptation but Tarr got a whole episode to himself there, and with all due respect to Hywel Bennet, Hardy is a more electrifying screen presence, showing as he did in Inception that he's a much better Bond than Daniel Pouty McPoutyface will ever be. John Hurt is great -- well of course he is, he's John Hurt -- as the mysterious, callous Control, but the way the film rattles through its story means that he's reduced to more or less a cameo.

If Hardy and Hurt are wasted, it's a good thing then that the characters that dominate the plot are also played by actors of some considerable talent. Colin Firth and Toby Jones stand out as the new masters of British intelligence, one warm and charming, the other twisted and manipulative, and Benedict Cumberbatch is as engaging to watch as always; his nervous, almost bookish portrayal of the chief scalphunter Peter Guillam is unusual but nothing less than enthralling.

The central performance from Gary Oldman is picking up all the plaudits, with good reason, although it is in truth both a triumph and a disappointment. It's Oldman's quiet stability which does so much to hold this almost frenzied film together and without him it might not have worked at all, but on the other hand he never quite manages to escape the shadow of Alec Guinness and almost seems to impersonate him on a couple of occasions, although it's a better impression than Ewan McGregor ever managed.

The way in which the villain of the piece, the Soviet spymaster Karla, is handled is also impressive; his influence is felt throughout the story but he's never seen, only described by a couple of characters, and this enigmatic obscurity is symbolised in a great scene in which Oldman's Smiley re-enacts a prior meeting with his counterpart for Guillam's benefit, with Karla being played by an empty chair.

One surprise is how warm Alfredson's film is at times. The BBC version -- and I promise to stop the comparisons soon, honest -- is quite cold and detached, with lots of winter filming and a Smiley who doesn't seem to care about anyone, but the film has some -- quite deliberate -- moments of humour and even dares to deliver a happy ending; the actual plot hasn't changed much, but the way it's shot and given triumphant backing music changes the whole tone of the final scenes. It's no better or worse than the way that other adaptation I promised not to mention did it, but the difference is striking.

Thomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy deserves to do well in the awards season -- it will sweep the BAFTAs and I'd be floored if it doesn't pick up an Oscar or two, at least for editing and Oldman's role -- as it is a great example of the untapped depth of the spy genre and a good film in its own right.

The problem is that it can't be judged in isolation; the BBC's version is so definitive that it is impossible to avoid making comparisons -- every single review of the film so far has mentioned the TV series at least as much as this one has -- and if the film isn't quite as good, then there's no shame in that. My advice would be to watch them both.

Kelvin Green erupted fully formed from the grey shapeless mass of Ubbo Sathla in the dark days before humans walked the earth. He grew up on Judge Dredd, Transformers, Indiana Jones #12, the Avengers and Spider-Man, and thinks comics don't get much better than FLCL, Nextwave and Rocket Raccoon. Kelvin lives among garbage and seagulls and doesn't hate Marvel nearly as much as you all think he does.

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