REVIEW: 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy'


Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the anti-Bond film. That’s probably the easiest way to describe the latest picture by director Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In). Tinker Tailor is a story written by an ex-spy for die-hard fans of the spy genre, people who want a movie with a complex, authentic depiction of Cold War British espionage.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy takes the most atmospheric parts of John le Carré’s novel and presents a cold, dreary, but thrilling movie, likely one of my favourites of 2011. Read on for my full review, including my ranking out of four stars!

The film introduces us to the realm of 1970s British intelligence, where the tension between the Soviets and the West almost pales in comparison to the internal conflicts in the “Circus”, as the British intelligence community is known. Ambitious younger agents grasp for the jobs of their superiors, all while a cunning double agent poses as a senior officer.

This scenario introduces us to George Smiley (Gary Oldman), the second-in-command to Control, head of the Circus. Smiley and Control (John Hurt) are forced out of their jobs just as they begin unravelling who the mole might be, leaving Smiley to work secretly against his own agency to find the traitor, before their operation is completely compromised.

While Oldman’s character is the lead, his unassuming appearance and uncomfortably quiet manner would have you think the film is about someone else. This isn’t a downside; anyone familiar with the George Smiley character from other portrayals (most notably that of Sir Alec Guinness) knows that this is what makes Smiley such a good spy – no one expects Smiley to be a Circus operative.

Oldman is supported by one of the best ensemble casts I’ve seen in a while: Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong and John Hurt fill out the rest of the major roles.  Again, it helps to be familiar with previous versions of the story, as the many character names and minute details can be difficult for newcomers to decode.

The characters move through chilling landscapes that appear slightly drained of colour, an effect that complements the material very well. Alfredson and his cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema don't rush through scenes; they use their camera to slowly reveal the puzzle pieces that make up the plot.

I especially liked their decision to keep their camera only on George Smiley for the scene where he retells his first meeting with his Russian nemesis, Karla. Instead of a flashback, Smiley patiently tells his colleague Peter Guillam (Cumberbatch) about the encounter, showing how each detail affects Smiley’s face.

As I said, this is the opposite of spy/action films like Bond and Bourne. There are no wild explosions or wanton chases here. The overwhelmingly quiet script is punctuated with brief flashes of violence, the technique that served recent films like The American and Drive so well. Once again, the approach suits the subject.

Everyone knows the old adage about spy stories, “Trust no one”. Too often, characters in other spy narratives are advised of this and promptly ignore it – the plot requires that they live until the end, so they can slip up, trust the bad guy, and still survive. What’s more, we often see the traitors from a mile away, and the suspense is lost. In Tinker Tailor, by contrast, we really can’t pick out the bad guys until we, like George Smiley, have assembled all the seemingly unrelated strands of information.

I hinted that it helps to know the story already, or to have at least seen the fantastic Alec Guinness version, released in 1979 as a six-part miniseries. Is the 2011 version better or worse? It’s difficult to say. While I prefer Guinness to Oldman as Smiley, I liked the supporting cast of this film version more than the 1979 one. If you enjoyed this film, I can’t recommend the TV version highly enough.

That extra viewing “homework” might be too much for some people, and so it’s worth pointing out that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a commitment.  As much as I enjoyed this film, not everyone walking in will click with the high-minded intelligence jargon, the 1970s setting or the complex narrative. It’s for that reason that I’m taking a few points off its otherwise perfect score.

It’s been said that you have to be a bit of an espionage nut to really enjoy Tinker Tailor, and I’d agree. This is no popcorn flick. Don’t let me discourage you, though, from checking this one out when you get the chance. The rollout of Tinker Tailor on North American screens has been slow at best. I was lucky to see it over Christmas, but it seems to only be reaching “nationwide” status this week.

For the tense atmosphere, great camera work and the nuanced performances from a standout cast, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy gets three and a half stars out of four.

Have you seen Tinker Tailor? What did you think? If you consider yourself a fan of spy stories, was the script easy to follow? Have any of you ever seen the original mini-series? Post any and all thoughts in the comments section, and browse through my other recent reviews:

Recent Releases:

A Matter of Taste | Margin Call | Happy Feet Two | Immortals | Vigilante Vigilante

Reviews of Classic Movies Series:

Spellbound (1945) | The Graduate (1967)Rope (1948) | 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)