Director: Tomas Alfredson
The first image in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a door being opened in the dead of night to reveal the wrinkled and worried face of MI6 head Control (John Hurt). He’s invited agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) for a chat and a briefing about a mission in Budapest. This sullen man and his solemn intonations set the pace for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (TTSS) right from the off; this is a deadly serious spy game, with great risks, no guarantee of success and a no-nonsense approach to the delicate work of espionage.
The mission that Control instructs Prideaux to undertake goes awry, leading to the ousting of Control and his deputy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) from the agency. We’re a world way from Bond-esque gizmos and guns here; these are secret agents as civil servants. Out with the martinis and in with sly teas with extended little fingers. If Sean Connery’s 007 gave as much thought as these agents did to the pulling of a trigger, he’d have been dead long ago. The thought is justified when it means the agency you work for is on the line. Smiley is brought back from his enforced retirement as his outsider position makes him ideal to complete the original aim of the Budapest mission: rooting out a mole buried in the upper echelons of MI6 by the Soviets. Control narrowed it down to a group of higher-ups, all distinct and yet as slimy and suspicious as each other. Is it buttoned-down Scot Allerline (Toby Jones)? Or chipper Bland (Ciarán Hinds)? Maybe it’s the flamboyant Haydon (Colin Firth)? Or the short-tempered Esterhase (David Dencik)? The ironically-named Smiley, low on emotion but high in intelligence, sets out to get the truth. Screenwriters Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor (who died last year and to whom the film is dedicated) manage to preserve the wordy characterisations of John Le Carré’s source novel whilst still upping the tension. Upon discovering an attempted report by ground agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) was suppressed, Smiley and his right-hand man Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) must cut through the rubbish being fed via official lines to get to where the truth lies. Both Smiley and the audience are drip-fed information (you MUST pay attention!), as the real nitty-gritty of spy work comes to the fore. The need for patience and detachment is reflected in Oldman. Though well aware of Alec Guinness’ interpretation of Smiley in the BBC adaptation of TTSS, Oldman makes Smiley his own with one of his most understated performances to date. Understated does not mean underplayed, as subtle glances and inflections in his voice communicate a great deal. The rest of the cast, a veritable ‘Best-of-British’ line-up, is uniformly excellent (though the likes of Hinds and Stephen Graham deserve more screentime than they actually get).
The script boasts both great depth and a sly wit, qualities it shares with director Tomas Alfredson. The Let The Right One In man shows a keen eye for specifics, both in juggling the narrative (flashbacks upon flashbacks fill the story gaps) and in the design; the early ‘70s setting is wonderfully realized, from Hoyte Van Hoytema’s grainy cinematography to the inclusion of Dana on the soundtrack. Alfredson is not afraid to let the film move at its glacial pace; he knows the devil is in the detail, and allows the audience to drink it all in. It may not set pulses racing, but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will get neurons firing and tongues wagging. It’s a wonderful hearkening back to more old fashioned detective stories, mixing Agatha Christie classiness with a real-world sense of jeopardy, and all infused with Le Carré’s gift for character. Smiley’s people have done him proud.