Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Film Review

Director: Tomas Alfredson

Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy and an awful lot of other famous people

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Release Date: 16th September 2011

A British secret agent (Mark Strong) sits down with his Hungarian contact in a café in Budapest. It’s 1973, at the height of the Cold War, and only a handful of people know this meeting is even taking place. A waiter walks over to take their order, sweat literally dripping off his face and onto the table. The agent becomes suspicious. Anyone could be hiding something – the mother breast-feeding her child, the old man in the café, even the contact himself. The soundtrack brilliantly overemphasises every sound, like an elderly woman creakily opening an overheard window. The agent is worried, and without any explanation decides to abort the meeting. He tries to casually walk away. But someone pulls a gun…

And thus begins Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: with some certainty destined to become the most tense film of 2011. But this doesn’t feel like a film made in 2011. This – director Tomas Alfederson’s adaptation of John La Carré’s novel – most resembles the paranoid conspiracy thrillers that were oh so common during the 1970s and 80s. Here is a film that emulates the Soviet scare of the 1970s with great care – spys, moles, secret communiqués, double agents and all manner of other agents of paranoia. This is the great success of TTSS (an unwieldy title demands an acronym) – you, like the characters, truly feel as if you cannot trust a soul.

Following the exciting opening, the film settles on a different but no-less effective level of slow-burning tension. A year after the Budapest incident, dismissed Agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is called on to investigate a potential mole in the higher echelons of ‘the Circus’, Britain’s secret intelligence service. The suspects are five: Percy Allenine (Toby Jones), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), Toby Esterhase (David Denick), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) and finally Smiley himself. With the help of two trusted investigators – played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Roger Lloyd-Pack (Only Fools and Horses’ Trigger) – Smiley sets out to discover the identity of the leak.

As you can probably tell by the excess of bracketed names above, we’re dealing with an absolute monster of an ensemble cast here. And each and every one of them performs admirably. Oldman is inspired and beautifully reserved as Smiley: a calm, brilliant investigator who is unfortunately prone to the occasional moment of quiet weakness. The rest of the suspects all equally impress, particularly Jones and Firth. Elsewhere, the reliably terrific Tom Hardy is, well, terrific in an extended role as a fugitive ex-spy. And John Hurt makes a serious impact in his few scenes as Circus ringmaster Control. This film is basically an acting powerhouse, and it’s telling that an actor as wonderful as Stephen Graham is reduced to a mere supporting role. They all have superb British accents too, even the Irish and Americans: this is a distinctively English film despite the wide backgrounds of the talent on and off screen.

Having such recognisable faces serves a further purpose – it goes someway to helping the audience easily identify the large amount of individuals participating in the dense narrative that unfolds. It’s much easier to put a name to a face when that face is Colin Firth or Gary Oldman. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a few moments when I got a little lost in the labyrinth of names, places and times: there’s only a brief and sudden visual indicator referencing why Control is absent after the prologue, for example. But for such a potentially heavy tale of espionage and intrigue, the film moves along at a steady and accessible pace thanks to the scriptwriters Peter Straughan, the late Bridget O’Connor (the film is dedicated to her) and La Carré himself. They even take a few opportunities to slide in an unexpected joke – you’ll be surprised how hard you’ll laugh at some of the lines.

There is, however, one last star of the show to highlight, and that is Swedish director Alfredson. Fans of his previous film Let the Right One In will discover a very different style here, barring a similar fondness for period detail and a somewhat grim colour palette. Indeed, this film is very fond of grey, and seemingly allergic to primary colours. It’s a successful aesthetic decision, although I should point out that during a handful of less imaginative moments it more resembles a BBC TV drama rather than a high profile feature film. That’s unavoidable given the nature of the material: for the most part, though, Alfredson and director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema utilise some very imaginative visuals. The camera often lingers as if it’s a surveillance camera or secret onlooker, again emphasising the ‘trust no one’ attitude that pervades every moment of the film: you’ll be second guessing the narrative and characters every step of the way. The film-makers have a fondness for symbolism (buzzing flies are a frequent annoyance for characters) as well as the occasional unusual visual gag – a scene with a flaming bird is a doozie. Everything moves along at a fantastic pace, even taking the time to focus on some curious subplots to further emphasise the themes. Alfredson’s decision to never show the face of Smiley’s wife Anne is a further nice touch in a film full of them. It’s a film that’s very subtle when it needs to be, and still full of edge-of-your-seat setpieces. Alberto Iglesias’ soundtrack is initially a little distracting with its jazz infused orchestrations, but ultimately settles into the rhythm of the film nicely.

Conclusion: Entertaining from start to finish, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the perfect movie to mark the end of a summer that has been dominated by dumb fun. Unfortunately, I am unfamiliar with the book and television series that precede this adaptation, but as a standalone film this is altogether successful.  Intelligent, thoughtful and brimming with a genuine respect for the audience, TTSS is the rare thriller that actively keeps you guessing. It, in a pleasant break from the norm, doesn’t want you to switch off your brain. And that’s only to be admired.

SCORE 4.5/5

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