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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

December 22, 2011
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

At long last, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy comes to the big screen. The 1979 miniseries adaptation of John Le Carré’s 1974 novel was a landmark in its time, and even more so now. When spy novels and movies have become synonymous with action and adventure — Ian Fleming’s James Bond and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series being notable exemplars — it’s almost impossible to imagine one that is truly thoughtful and character-driven. But this is just what Tomas Alfredson gives us; no small wonder from the director of Låt den rätte komma in.

The former head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, known only as “Control” (John Hurt), suspected there was a mole inside the organization; he’d narrowed it down to one of five possibilities, which he’d codenamed after the nursery rhyme: Tinker — Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) — Tailor — Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) — Soldier — Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) — Poorman — Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) — and Beggerman — George Smiley (Gary Oldman). This last possibility especially pained him, since Smiley was his closest confidant inside the SIS. But after sending Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) on a mission to Budapest to find the identity of the mole — and to Prideaux’ death — he and Smiley were both forced into retirement. And yet the leaks still seemed to flow; the treasury secretary in charge of “The Circus”, Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) enlists Smiley to find the mole himself, with the help of the young Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch).

The big problem for husband-and-wife screenwriters Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor is how to take a story that filled a seven-part miniseries and condense it into a mere two hours, and they’ve solved it admirably. The entire script is stripped down and streamlined into a tight core that still gives the story plenty of room to breathe. That said, I won’t go so far as some others who claim they “can’t see where they made the cuts”; it’s true in the sense that there are no scars where it feels like something is missing, but it’s obvious that many of the flashbacks are either summarized or dropped entirely, especially outside The Circus. Instead this script focuses inwards on memories of the SIS itself rather than what has happened in far-flung climes. And to its great credit it never feels rushed; Alfredson’s rendition is every bit as laconic, detail-oriented, and graceful as Smiley himself.

The other consequence to the shortened script is that the actors have far less screen time in which to establish their characters. In part, it helps that they’re played a tad less subtly than in the miniseries, but it helps more that the whole cast is at the top of their respective games. Even Tom Hardy, with whom I’ve never been particularly impressed, is excellent in his turn as the repatriating Ricki Tarr. And Oldman absolutely meets the challenge set by Sir Alec Guinness’ performance in the miniseries. I love Oldman, but I would never have thought he had such a calm, nuanced character in him given his usual roles. His Smiley is an absolute joy to watch.

The art and costume direction deserve just as much praise. Gone are the generic office spaces, though they were more realistic than the overly ornate trappings of most spy movie headquarters. Instead, this Circus feels like a coherent, architectural whole, designed for the paranoia of its times and occupants. The clothing is distinctly period without being flashy. Not only is it an engrossing story, the film’s appearance is excellent from top to bottom.

So the miniseries stands as an expanded version of the same story that can take more time to dig further into the background, but this film is a wonderful example of how a spy movie can be smart, tense, and enthralling, and all without a single explosion. I know it’s not usually done to root for sequels, but if the producers can keep the same team working together as well as this then I’ll look expectantly forward to seeing both The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. chandlerswainreviews permalink
    December 26, 2011 22:30

    I absolutely love films about intelligent people made by people who respect and celebrate that intelligence. Bravo to all concerned.


  1. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol « DrMathochist

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