Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

A very British spy film. Who knew you could have dramatic tension without an explosion or a car chase?  

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the latest film adaptation of John Le Carre’s spy novel, was anticipated with trepidation by fans of both the source material and the 1979 television series starring Alec Guinness. Could a film, no matter how much money was thrown at it, possibly capture all the complexities of character and plot?

It turns out they can. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a compelling, edge-of-your-cinema-seat piece of storytelling, despite the fact there isn’t one CGI-explosion or choreographed fight scene to be found. Who knew that could still be done?

The film begins with Control (played with spidery intensity by John Hurt), head of the British Secret Intelligence Service unit called Circus, ushering a stiffly reserved Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) into a secret meeting. ‘There’s a rotten apple, Jim,’ Control tells the skeptical Prideaux.

Determined to find the mole he believes has infiltrated the upper echelons of the Circus, he sends Prideaux on a mission to turn a Hungarian general. It all goes quietly, viciously wrong. Prideaux is shot, Control and ‘his man’, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), are forced out of the Service and the mole is safe. For now.

After a montage of time-passing shots (Smiley gets new glasses, goes swimming in the river and Control dies in hospital) a mysterious man calls the government minister who oversees Circus and exposes the existence of the mole. Smiley is brought back from his swimming and, with the help of agent Peter Guillem, is set the task of catching the mole.

Percy Allenine (Toby Jones), the smug new head of the Circus who masterminded Control’s departure? Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), the suave, well-dressed hero of the Circus and Prideaux’s best friend? Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), the stolid working-class spy made good? Or Tony Esterhase (David Dencik), the ungrateful foundling brought into Circus by Control?

Or maybe it is none of the above. Control did have a fifth suspect, Smiley himself. The Spy.

Gary Oldman as the grey, precise Smiley is impressively reserved. Every facial expression, every gesture is careful, mindful. At first he seems boring, devoid of any significant internal life, but then gradually that becomes the point of him. He is a character who has spent so long being other people that he can’t just be himself.

At an office party he is stiffly cordial, painfully out of place, and even in his own home he sits carefully as if unsure of his welcome. It is only when he is working that he is at ease, although he is no less controlled.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Guillem works well as Smiley’s assistant, professional but just callow enough to need the older spy’s guidance. I suspect a lot of people will cite the ‘tidy up loose ends’ moment as Cumberbatch’s most powerful scene. However, I prefer the scenes he shares with Smiley, eating dinner in a greasy spoon while discussing traitors.

It is that sort of kitchen sink feel that director Tomas Alfredson does so well, and really captures the heart of Le Carre’s novel: the normalcy of the people caught up in this abnormal existence. So the under-secretary is crunching on toast when he discusses budgeting a safehouse for a Russian informant, and spies aren’t nearly as good at adultery as you might think.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy isn’t a film that you can dip into. Alfredson’s direction is stylized, almost mannered in places, and lingers oddly at moments. To be honest, the first ten minutes of the film seem a promise of two hours of boredom to come... But it doesn’t take long for the claustrophobic paranoia of the world to capture the viewer.

The occasional blurts of violence are all the more visceral for their scarcity and lack of drama, and the intensity of the characters is catching. (The cast ain't half bad either, with the likes of Tom Hardy and Colin Firth also onboard.)

And it really is a lot more nerve-wracking to watch Guillem’s sleight-of-hand shuffle as he takes information from the heart of the Circus in this period drama than it would have been to watch him pocket a pen drive.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is at Queen's Film Theatre from September 16 to October 5.