Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
***** out of 5
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy begins with a shooting. It also ends with one. That however, is just about as far as the gunplay goes; this is a spy thriller set in the offices and safe houses of a grainy, down-trodden and melancholy world. Don’t let that put you off however, it is also the smartest, most absorbing film of the year.
Our setting is 1973 and the height of the Cold War, an increasingly frosty period laced with suspicion, paranoia, mistrust and treachery. “Control” (played by John Hurt) is the head of a British secret service cell known as the Circus, who receives ‘golden’ intelligence that there is a Russian mole at the top of his organisation, and in reaction deploys agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary in order to attain the identity of the traitor. What ensues is a melee of cat and mouse, shown in suspicious, smoke-smeared scenes, dusty flashbacks and hazy memories.
After Prideaux is shot in the back during an incredibly uneasy and wonderfully staged rendezvous, “Control” and his man George Smiley (the terrific Gary Oldman) are unceremoniously dismissed. Sometime later, and after pug-faced Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) has taken control at the Circus, the perspicacious Smiley renews the mole-hunt with the aid of Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch).Their attentions soon turn to the inner circle and four men in particular; Alleline (Tinker), Bill Haydon (Tailor), Roy Bland (Soldier) and Toby Esterhase (Poorman) – one or more of whom have committed both national and personal betrayals.
This is the second adaptation of John Le Carré’s gripping 1974 source novel, following the BBC television version of 1979 starring Alec Guinness. Despite director Tomas Alfredson’s new take being a period piece, the era and atmosphere are both exquisitely recreated with assured confidence. His austere world is one of beiges, browns and greys; a yellow fog tingeing the screen, like decades worth of nicotine stain. There are no super spies in the ilk of Bond or Bourne to be found here, no heroes – indeed there is something of a sadness about them, an almost pitiful demeanour of middle aged men playing at espionage.
The casting is inch perfect, with the aforementioned Cumberbatch and the engrossing Tom Hardy as twitchy field agent Ricki Tarr being particular highlights. The king performance at the centre of this chessboard of deception however comes from Gary Oldman. Always so effective as part of an ensemble in recent years (the Harry Potter and Batman franchises), he really excels and thrives here as the sharp, serene Smiley who simultaneously suffers and struggles with his own personal humiliation in silence, epitomising Britishness and never allowing it to affect the job in hand.
Alfredson has created an enthralling, engaging and intricately clever modern-day masterpiece, aided by a superb cast and Alberto Iglesias’s splendid score. The result is an intelligent film about the intelligence service – a novel thing.