Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 15th January 2012
A long time ago, in a country on the other side of the world, Alec Guinness appeared in his seminal television performance as George Smiley, a taciturn, inscrutable secret agent on a mission to dig out a Soviet mole. The BBC series screened over seven weeks in 1979, one of the first instances of “appointment viewing” for a British public that was enthralled by the hunt: which of the four suspected MI6 spies was the traitor?
It has taken three decades for John le Carre’s source novel to earn a big-screen adaptation, but it comes with a high-calibre cast under the steady hand of Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (well- regarded for his arthouse vampire flick Let the Right One In, and here bringing to bear all of his expertise in creating dark action in the thick of a tense, brooding atmosphere).
Gary Oldman takes on Guinness’s legendary role, eschewing the wild-eyed craziness of much of his career and here capturing Smiley’s quiet man perfectly. By saying less and seeing more, Smiley is the perfect spy sent to catch a spy. Oldman sports his trademark 70s spectacles and tan overcoat, shrugging off aspersions cast about his good name, while rising above the rumours of his wife’s infidelities. As the characters pace about the brown and orange set design of the era, the British secret service has none of the sheen of contemporary shows such as Spooks. With no cellphones to trace or DNA samples to test, old-fashioned spy-work is all about using the little grey cells and hard-won intelligence.
And a modern audience, particularly one which doesn’t recall the TV series, will need every little grey cell in order to keep up with this story. Condensed appropriately and successfully into a little over two hours, one must listen carefully to everything said by Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Kathy Burke and the many other excellent actors who work with and against Smiley in his pursuit of the mole. It’s refreshing to be back in a Cold War, pre-Islamic terrorist world, though this change in mindset may prove challenging for some viewers. Often told in flashback, many of the set pieces are gripping, accompanied by an edgy, agitated soundtrack. It is almost a relief when we see the spooks at play during their work Christmas party, proving they are as real and fallible as us civilians.
Tinker Tailor is a smart film about spies and spying that is spellbinding and rewarding.