Movie Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

The release of Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s spy novel was one of the highlights of the film calendar for all cineastes, a possible classic in the making worthy of huge excitement, as our preview of it would indicate.

Many would have wondered how the Swedish director’s style, so visible in his masterpiece Let The Right One In, would translate to the spy genre. After all, this is a world we’re used to seeing through a glossy lens, full of beautiful women, fast cars and layer upon layer of subterfuge, usually captured in a series of exotic locations.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy does fulfil some of the above criteria, but not in a manner we’ve really seen before. Tracing the hunt for a mole in the British Intelligence service – ‘The Circus’ as it’s dubbed here – in the 1970s, Alfredson’s film has more hidden twists and turns than an unlit country lane at night. Gary Oldman’s spy George Smiley – recalled by the government after being forced out along with old boss Control (John Hurt) – must root out and rout the Russian spy lurking in the upper echelons of the Circus. The suspects are the top brass of the organisation: Bill Haydon (Colin Firth); Percy Alleline (Toby Jones); Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). The problem: How do you spot a spy amongst spies?

Alfredson makes it as difficult as possible. Bringing the same grim flair which made Right One In so enthralling to this very English affair, he offers no linear plot developments, every stolen glance and unexplained meeting playing out against the granite-faced impassivity of Oldman’s Smiley. How nice it is, too, to see a director with a noticeable celluloid signature in an age of studio hacks and CGI addicts.

What helps foster this sense of total uncertainty is the stellar cast, all more than adroit at shielding their characters’ true intentions under sheaths of enigma, seldom revealing the meaning behind any action or conversation. Oldman, who along with the superb Benedict Cumberbatch (as his partner Peter Guillam) carries the bulk of the exposition, is magnificent: his Smiley must remain something of a blank canvas onto which action is projected, but Oldman fills the master spy with a telling humanity, revealed in fragments. His stony exterior never completely cracks, but we see it fracture as he uncovers his wife’s infidelity or vividly relives a conversation from years past. Cumberbatch’s Guillam provides a spry foil to Oldman’s gravitas, an idealistic young man with a firm belief in truth and a far more heart-on-the-sleeve approach to espionage.

Of our suspects, Firth and Dencik stand out. The former, unsurprisingly, is perfect for his role: his clipped aristocratic voice and swagger making Haydon at once the most likeable and most odious of the bunch. Firth also underplays masterfully, forming a rigid façade into which not we, nor anyone else, can delve. Dencik, quiet for much of the film, has a brilliant third-act scene with Smiley which offers the one of the only hints of humanity behind the hubris of The Circus’ bigwigs, and pitches it wonderfully, deftly staying the right side that fine line between overwhelming emotion and melodrama.

Incredibly, there are still two major cast members who find time to turn in magnificent performances. Mark Strong, so wonderful in The Guard, is magnetic as one MIA agent, Jim Prideaux, and Tom Hardy’s Ricki Tarr – the other AWOL Circus operative – is a riveting creation, full of conflict and misplaced courage. To reveal much else about either’s performance would be a spoiler.

Indeed, it’s tough to find the right way to describe TTSS without giving tidbits away. Alfredson’s movie, from Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor’s screenplay, is a finely balanced highwire act, forcing you to focus on the road just ahead while simultaneously daring you to peek over the side. For those who don’t yet know the finale from one of the earlier adaptations or the book itself – I didn’t – it’s nearly impossible to predict from scene to scene, and able to grip despite showing remarkably little action for a film of its type.

Just as the cast masterfully underplay the drama, so too Alfredson can mine tension from the most minuscule, mundane events (has a sequence of someone looking through archives ever been this riveting?) and enhances the incidental sounds of footsteps or mechanical clicking to heighten our senses at every turn, a technique fans of Right One In will already know well. The outbursts of violence, when they come, are brutal and painfully realistic, and made all the more shocking by their suddenness; this is a film where death comes quickly, and is not pored over with voyeuristic glee or dismissed with glib remarks.

The most striking visual weapons in Alfredson’s arsenal are his colour palette and long single-shots. Every shade and hue is muted here, all deep blues and faded browns, an environment of shadow and almost unsettling normality in which Istanbul, London and Budapest are permanently overcast and the only splashes of colour are blood or glowing cigarette tips. The latter technique is beautifully utilised, Alfredson’s lens lingering on faces or in moments for a few beats longer than you expect, letting his talented cast reveal tiny nuances of character through the delicate movements his crisp cameras detect so well.

Credit the director and screenwriters, too, with creating an intriguing, but never frustrating storyline. We’re constantly dared to second-guess events, but as we continually fail to predict them, the brilliance of Smiley is further highlighted, and the skill of his suspects made even more apparent. The plot’s twists – of which there are more than a few – aren’t contrived or awkward partly due to the marvellous acting on display, but also because they are so well captured and written. The more you think back over the film, the more tiny details you notice, and the more you appreciate the depth of effort put into this superb movie.

Verdict: Bled of colour but not of vividness, stripped of answers but not of questions, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a tremendous piece of cinema. The aesthetic, sound, direction and script are all beautifully crafted, and you won’t see a better ensemble performance than this for quite some time. Superior filmmaking on nearly every level, and utterly brilliant.

Luke Grundy is a fervent assimilator of media living amid the bright lights of London, England. If he’s not watching films or listening to music, he’s probably asleep, eating or dead. A writer, journalist and musician, he is the creator of movie/music blog Odessa & Tucson and lives for epistemology.

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