Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
With the world in the grip of recession and former KGB-men being poisoned in London restaurants, ex-spy John Le Carre’s classic novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy feels as relevant now as it did in the ‘70s. The chilliest of Cold War thrillers, Tomas Alfredson’s masterful film faithfully distils Le Carre’s labyrinthine plot, condensing it into just over two hours of deadly office politics.
It’s 1973 and when a botched operation in Budapest goes bloodily wrong, leaving agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) shot in the back, legendary spymaster Control (John Hurt), head of ‘the Circus’ (MI6) is forced to retire in disgrace, taking with him his heir apparent, the mild-mannered, cerebral George Smiley (Gary Oldman). But when rogue agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) surfaces in London with evidence that a Soviet mole has infiltrated the Circus at the highest level, Whitehall mandarin Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) secretly brings Smiley back in from the cold and charges him with finding out which of the Circus’ high-fliers is the traitor; new chief Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), his right-hand man Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), the backstabbing Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) and suave, charismatic, ladies man Bill Haydon (Colin Firth). Aided by Tarr’s young section chief Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley enters the proverbial “wilderness of mirrors” where love, loyalty and friendships are commodities to be traded and exploited intent on exposing the double agent whatever the cost.
Eschewing the cartoon heroics of Bond and the breathless momentum of Bourne, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is grounded in the far from glamorous day-to-day tedium and gnawing paranoia of the spy world, a world where heroes are shot in the back and ‘assets’ are sacrificed like pawns. The scene where Guillam must steal a file from the records department is a nerve-shredding masterpiece of tension, paranoia and underlying menace, the equal of any Bond set-piece, where discovery means torture and death. But on paper, it’s just a guy taking some work home with him. Violence is sudden, shocking, fatal, all the more so because we rarely see the acts themselves just the aftermath; a man gutted in a bath, the flys swarming around a bloody wound, a girl’s brains on a wall.
This is a film about betrayal; betrayal of country, betrayal of a colleague, a friend, a lover, betrayal of ideals. Betrayal of self. But it’s also a film about the human cost of that betrayal. Ambitious men sacrifice their mentors. Secrets are traded. An innocent woman is shot in the face, baby still nursing at her breast. Tarr uses love to coerce asset Irina, losing himself, damning himself, in the process. A broken Prideaux hides from a truth he doesn’t want to face. Guillam brutally ends an affair rather than allow himself the weakness of a relationship. Smiley unflinchingly manipulates allies and enemies alike, betraying his own principles. The world of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a world where no-one can be trusted, least of all the face in the mirror. Only the traitor remains true to themselves. The horrific office Christmas party, featuring all the principals, the film flashes back to repeatedly could be the Grace Bros. office party but it offers all the answers if the characters were only willing to see them.
The rich period setting perfectly captures the grey ‘70s milieu of Le Carre’s world where grim, grey men operate in the shadows, jockeying for power and stabbing each other in the back, as much vampires as the protagonist of Alfredson’s previous film Let The Right One In. Washed-out greys and browns dominate the film, recalling paranoid classics The Ipcress File or The Conversation, the only respite the lush verdant greens of the ponds where Smiley relaxes by swimming. The bug-eyed Citroens, Guillam’s dandy suits, Haydon’s casual sexism, Tarr’s sheepskin like the reassuringly clunky technology of the film (solid Steenbecks and reel-to-reel tapes) ground the film in a half-remembered reality, untainted by nostalgia.
Oldman is fantastic as Smiley in a masterful, subtle, restrained performance, perfectly capturing the character’s repressed nature (this is a man who eats a Wimpy with a knife and fork) and his razor-keen intelligence. He doesn’t speak for the first 20 or so minutes of the film but his silence is deafening. He draws you in, dominating while never suffocating the other actors. After Bronsan and Inception it almost goes without saying how good Tom Hardy is but here he brings a softness and vulnerability to the guilt-ridden Tarr, a thug redeemed and haunted by love, that’s heartbreaking. Firth is surprisingly good as the charismatic Haydon, a likeable lounge lizard who says and does what he wants and has enormous fun doing it, David Dencik is loathsomely sympathetic as Esterhase, a man who betrays everyone around him to get ahead (but does that make him a traitor) while Toby Jones is eminently punchable as the smug, wheedling Alleline.
While Hurt and Burke possibly have too much screentime, chewing the scenery around them and Strong’s wounded Prideaux doesn’t get enough, the real revelation is TV Sherlock Cumberbatch who has never been better delivering a complex, layered, nuanced performance as Guillam, a man forced to near breaking point by having to juggle personal and professional loyalties.
Bleak, cerebral, melancholic and totally absorbing, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
is heartbreakingly good.
Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Kathy Burke, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Simon McBurney, Svetlana Khodchenkova, John Hurt
Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan