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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

By Ben Nicholson • March 22nd, 2012
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Studio Canal

Release date: March 26th, 2012
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 127 minutes

Director: Thomas Alfredson
Writers: Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan, John Le Carré (novel)

Cast: Gary Oldman , Mark Strong, John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Roger Lloyd-Pack, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, David Dencik, Tom Hardy, Cathy Burke

In 2009 I walked out of the Phoenix Picturehouse completely seduced by Thomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In. It was the film that shot him into the public eye, becoming an international hit that received critical adoration I can only echo.

On the back of that success he was given the task of bringing John Le Carré’s epic spy drama Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to the big screen for the first time, using his muted Scandinavian colour palette. It was previously adapted for the small screen in 1974 with Sir Alec Guiness as George Smiley, but having never seen that or read the source novel, I was in the fortunate position of being able to review the film without the baggage of already being a fan and purely on its own merits – and boy are there merits.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the story of British Intelligence, “The Circus”, and their battle with Soviet master spy ‘Karla’. This battle takes the form of a double-agent, a Soviet mole, placed in the very heart of the British agency. The film begins with a mission to Hungary for Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) sanctioned by the head of The Circus, Control (John Hurt), which is designed to learn the identity of the mole. The mission goes horribly wrong and sees the end of Control’s reign and the conclusion of “his man” George Smiley’s (Gary Oldman) intelligence career.

When, a year later, it becomes clear that there really is a mole deep with British intelligence, Smiley is asked, as an outsider, to uncover their identity. With the aid of Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the loyal Mendel (Roger Lloyd-Pack) he sets out to discover the double-agent who is narrowed down to one of the top Circus agents; Alleline (Toby Jones), Haydon (Colin Firth), Bland (Ciarán Hinds) or Estehase (David Dencik).

The navigation of what is clearly a labyrinthine plot from Le Carré is handled superbly by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s screenplay which allows things to happen at a relatively slow pace considering the whole thing fits into a two hour run time – and it is a breath of fresh air in a multiplex crammed more often with explosion-a-minute spy thrillers.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The exposition is handled incredibly well, through a few flashbacks, and through scenes bereft of lengthy dialogue, each one also giving incredible character insight (both to people inside and outside the scene).

A short mildly comic scene with a bee in a car perfectly sums up George Smiley in ten seconds without a word needing to be uttered. A single shot of Smiley at the Christmas party (a recurring flashback) lasting not more than ten seconds tells us all we need to know about his feelings for his wife and his relationship with his colleague Haydon. Now that is a great piece of film-making.

Thomas Alfredson’s handling of the material is pretty much perfect throughout and visually, both in composition and in the subdued tones, the film is impeccable. The final shot of Smiley when he steadies himself on the banister, the final shot of Alleline in the rain, the final shot of Haydon’s face a tear on cheek – all are absolutely spot on. People may argue that he is not as bold or imaginative as he was with Let The Right One In but I think that the camerawork and the visual style are perfectly adapted to suit the subject – George Smiley. And I’ve not yet got to the casting and subsequent performances which elevate the film even further.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Gary Oldman is simply sublime as the perfect spy, Smiley. Always thinking, always straight, never flustered or emotional and yet conveying everything that the character needs to through the way he sits, through the delivery of every line. The scene in which Smiley recounts his meeting with Karla is fantastic, as is the scene in which he instructs Guillam to sort out any ‘mess’ he may have to.

I have noted some detractors of the film who feel he is too empty and characterless and for large swathes of the film you can argue that this is precisely the point – he shows exactly the kind of person that he needs to be in his line of work. The one thing that cracks this veneer is his wife and we see touching and subtle implications of this littered throughout.


  • Commentary
  • Deleted Scenes
  • Featurettes
  • Interviews
  • Photo Gallery
  • Trailers

He is also surrounded by performances of equal brilliance. Hurt, Strong, Hinds, Jones, Firth, Dencik, Cumberbatch, Lloyd-Pack, Cathy Burke (as Circus researcher Connie Sachs) and Tom Hardy (as head-hunter Ricki Tarr) are all on absolutely top form not putting a single foot wrong, especially given that they each only have a very limited time to make an impression – something which the novel and TV series can do at more length no doubt. Whether they are in scenes of high emotion (Cumberbatch and Hardy are both utterly convincing) or reservation (all of those suspected of being the spy) or of quiet almost maniacal sadness (Hurt, Burke and Strong) they never drop the ball so ably carried up top by Oldman.

There was one shot in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that I wasn’t overly keen on (with a train track) and the fact that I can single out such a thing is, I think, testament to the quality of the piece otherwise.

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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