Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

This Cold War spy thriller, adapted from John le Carré’s 1974 novel of the same title, has already been shot as a seven part TV series on the BBC in 1979 starring Alec Guinness as the main character, George Smiley. As such there has already been an iconic and detailed portrayal of the novel on-screen, but enough time seems to have passed to re-tell it for an audience that has very little clue about the Cold War.

Anyone expecting a James Bond style spy flick will be sorely disappointed (a couple of teenage boys in the screening I was at left after half an hour). This is a slow-paced (so slow that my girlfriend, Jo, fell asleep at least twice!) film that concentrates on the paranoia and suspicion that permeated the secret services during the Cold War and the hunt for a double agent operating in the upper echelons of the British Secret Intelligence Service (S.I.S.). In fact the director, Tomas Alfredson, has said that instead of car chases there are looks across rooms between characters in this film.

The main problem with the film seems to be that the subject matter covered in both the novel and the TV series is far too weighty to fit into a feature film. Unless you are well up to speed on all the specialist terms used during the film you may well find yourself completely lost as there is not enough time in the two hours available to explain all the terms in Basil Exposition moments. For example; ‘The Circus’ is the name used instead of the S.I.S.; ‘Witchcraft’ is the name used for the Soviet intelligence the British spies are after, as well as the more familiar ‘moles’ and ‘nurseries’.

That said, the casting and quality of acting on display here is exemplary; there are some of the best actors of their generation mixing it with some of the best actors of the moment. Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong line up against the outstanding Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds and Toby Jones.

Oldman plays a very subdued role as George Smiley; most of his acting is done with his eyes as opposed to most of the hyperactive roles he has played in the past. Toby Jones plays an obnoxious operative called Percy Alleline, but the stand-out performance amongst this ensemble is Tom Hardy, who commands complete attention whenever he appears on-screen. Each and every one of the cast seems to have locked in with the themes of the novel; the glances that are shared by them say a thousand times more than the dialogue could ever do in the time constraints of the film. There is an almost visible sense of the paranoia and loathing between certain characters which builds tension you could cut with a knife.

The tone of the film’s colour palette is wonderfully sepia with every shot set in an orange or brown room that gives off the appearance they have been stained with decades of cigarette smoke. In fact, each and every frame seems to have been shot through a fog of smoke, so top marks to Alfredson and director of photography, Hoyte Van Hoytema.

This is easily the first serious contender for multiple Oscars next year and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Oldman pick up his first, long-awaited and much deserved, golden statue. But, as with most serious contenders for the top prize in cinema, the film is a little stuffy and knowingly intelligent and because of this – plus the lack of explanation of various plot points – I find it hard to imagine that it will win over a massive audience. Much like 2007’s ‘There Will Be Blood’, this seems much more like a masterclass in acting than a mass-appeal blockbuster.

In short: awesome acting, great cast but lack of detail in the plot makes it difficult to follow. There’s a whole lot of Tinker Tailor before you get to the Sailor Spy.


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