REVIEW: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy [2011]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 127 minutes | Release Date: September 16th, 2011 (UK)
Studio: StudioCanal / Focus Features
Director(s): Tomas Alfredson
Writer(s): Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan / John le Carré (novel)

“Smiley leaves with me”

When I first heard about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy I didn’t think it had a chance of living up to my expectations. It possessed an all-star cast, was director Tomas Alfredson‘s English-language follow-up to the brilliant Let the Right One In, and was adapted from an espionage thriller by John le Carré—the novelist of another personal favorite, The Constant Gardener. An unforgettable marketing campaign piqued my interest with stunning character posters composed of number and letter strands color-coded to create each face and the never-ending praise to follow couldn’t be ignored. So as the lights dimmed and Mark Strong‘s Jim Prideaux stoically entered into Control’s (John Hurt) home to learn his newest off-the-books assignment in Budapest, anticipation drifted away giving the quiet excitement of serious men dramatically uncovering secrets my full attention.

Already a 1979 British miniseries with the great Alec Guinness portraying aging MI6 veteran George Smiley, this new version hasn’t given the material a contemporary facelift. One of the most intriguing aspects of the work is its 1970s aesthetic straight down to the grainy, muted appearance of the film stock. Similar to Spielberg‘s Munich but with a grittier, dirtier exterior to thrust us into the world these men inhabit, Alfredson slides through his sets to expose the myriad details hidden in the frame. Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan‘s screenplay isn’t interested in spelling everything out for us. It instead intelligently gives every minute detail needed to uncover the Russian mole residing within the covert government institution as clues for us to decipher in concert with those onscreen. We are right beside Smiley (Gary Oldman) on his search, intoxicated by his stalwart patriotism and calculated objectivity to determine the answers he seeks.

Told linearly from the premature changing of the guard at Circus—the handful of men with the highest level security clearance basking in power within their soundproof room—to Smiley’s eventual hypothesis on what’s been occurring directly under their noses, constant flashbacks and the straying towards other characters’ paths do occur often. Time is rendered in flux as we see the intricately shot and edited sequence of Strong amidst nervously undercover Turkish agents setting their trap a mere five minutes in before whisking off to his days teaching under an alias and working alongside best friend Bill Haydon (Colin Firth). Some passages are less disorienting like Smiley’s many recollections of a Christmas party back when Circus was whole, but no single frame of carefully placed silence is wasted. The smallest detail may prove the most important piece to solving the mystery and it only takes the split second of a blink to miss it.

As the film continues, the relationships of these men are made clearer. We start to understand the dynamics and allegiances at play once Control and Smiley are forced into retirement and the new leaders begin to ask the Minister (Stuart Graham) and his liaison Oliver (Simon McBurney) for favors. It is the operation code-named Witchcraft that drives the wedge between veterans and the brashly self-important Percy Alleline-led (Toby Jones) youngsters. With Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) and Haydon already on board, his promise of making Britain desirable again as a Cold War equal to the CIA sways Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) too despite being Control’s man. This four-headed monster pushes the two men who could have prevented what’s to come away into oblivion and the old saying of “Who’s policing the police?” becomes an apt sentiment as greed usurps security. They’ve let a fox into the henhouse.

And so the tale spirals into darkness as Smiley forms a small team to discover the validity of the rumored mole. We know it’s the reason Prideaux was sent to Budapest, but believing one of the men he’s worked with for decades could be a double agent isn’t an easy pill to swallow for the semi-retiree. With Benedict Cumberbatch‘s Peter Guillam on his side to access Circus and its locked files, the interweaving of past and present ratchets up as the chaotic dance between truth and lie crescendos. Interviews are conducted with other MI6 members working at the time—Kathy Burke, Stephen Graham, and Tom Hardy all perfect with varying degrees of anger, fear, and guilt in the parts they played—and Smiley’s cool confidence and unflappable nature grounds everything into a tautly masterful web of suspense.

Oldman nails the role with a laconic demeanor and piercing stare while Cumberbatch and Strong stand out as emotionally invested agents knowing the stakes. As for Jones and his crew of pawns, each emanates enough deceit to hold an equal claim to being the ‘presumed traitor’. What’s refreshing about le Carré’s work, however, is that this revelation becomes less important than witnessing the waltz ensnaring them. We can guess who the culprit is by cutting through the deflections and misdirection, but our willingness to completely invest ourselves in the search is the real success. I felt Cumberbatch’s fear when the risk of stealing confidential files appeared too much, I empathized with Strong once he discovers his government’s betrayal, and I idolized Oldman’s ability to push aside personal problems like a cheating wife and thankless tenure to look at the facts and believe one of his peers to be a fraud.

A gorgeous period piece—yes, you don’t need corsets, frills, and wigs to be one—Alfredson shows he’s no fluke behind the camera. I imagine letting the material breathe within a miniseries setting would allow for more in-depth analysis and perhaps a better understanding of the men being chased, but I’m not sure it would be as successful at capturing the essence of the espionage genre like here. A quick marathon through the machinations of a spy’s deductive reasoning, there may be more action in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy‘s subtext than could ever be depicted through the sharp cuts and editing of a Bourne Identity. Heady and surprising, they simply don’t make films like this anymore.

[1] (L to R) David Dencik as “Toby Esterhase,” Colin Firth as “Bill Haydon,” Toby Jones as “Percy Alleline,” John Hurt as “Control,” Gary Oldman as “George Smiley,” and Ciarán Hinds as “Roy Bland” in Focus Features release of Tomas Alfredson’s TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY. Credit: Jack English
[2] Benedict Cumberbatch (L) as “Peter Guillam” and Gary Oldman (R) as “George Smiley” in Focus Features release of Tomas Alfredson’s TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY. Credit: Jack English
[3] Colin Firth stars in the spy thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a Focus Features release directed by Tomas Alfredson.

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