Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

2011. Cert: 15

Director: Tomas Alfredson

There is a mole at the heart of British Government Intelligence and it’s one of five candidates. But which one?

Let’s not kid ourselves, the root of this political thriller is, essentially, a whodunnit? But any analogy to Agatha Christie or rural Midsomer ends here.

Director Tomas Alfredson produces a crisp, sophisticated, and intelligent movie. We are taken back to a time of Soviet Union political paranoia (“from now on always assume you’re being watched”) when the terrorists were Russian agents, not Islamic extremists. Alfredson presents an austere greyness; it’s the Cold War and it feels bitter and grave. 

Central to the story is George Smiley. He’s getting on a little; recently forced into a humiliating early ‘retirement’, deserted by his wife, and in need of a prescription upgrade to his glasses. Following the apparent killing of agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) and the death of MI6 boss, ‘Control’ (John Hurt), Smiley is called back by Government Ministers to track down the identity of the double-agent that Prideaux and Control had been investigating. 

Gary Oldman as Smiley gives his most powerful performance yet; evoking Smiley as a broken, tortured man; lonely and left out to dry by his employers. Prior to the release there has been much talk about the BBC’s acclaimed 1979 series or Alec Guinness’s iconic performance. But they seem irrelevant here. If you’re like me and have never seen the series or read John Le Carré’s novel you have no frame of reference. But no matter. Oldman’s Smiley stands on his own. He is cerebral, calm, morose. He has very little to say but Oldman’s eyes are the only voice we need; the more he suppresses Smiley’s agony the more we feel. 

The screenplay, adapted from Le Carré’s novel by Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor, is skillfully structured. This isn’t a car-chase-gun-yielding-absurd thriller; this is a thoughtful, tactical, poignant drama. Control’s chess piece symbolism is apt as Smiley and his second, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), manoeuvre themselves around the secret service offices, secret files and suspicious agents. And the longer the game goes on the more the personal lives of the men are revealed and affected. This dreary, male dominated environment is taught with homosexual undertones and these secrets parallel the political secrets. Personal relationships are destroyed, affairs and treachery revealed, and the once seemingly friendly working environment self-destructs.

Alfredson allows his actors to take their time. The director of Let the Right One In trusts the small detail and the subtleties of his stellar cast. Oldman is suitably supported; in particular by Mark Strong. In the opening set-piece Strong is as cool as any 007; as the school teacher he is avuncular; as the friend he is sensitive and tragic. Colin Firth as Bill Haydon is charming, with a sexual twinkle towards Strong’s Prideaux, reminding us of George Falconer in A Single Man.

Alfredson directs suspense with aplomb and the whole two hours is brilliantly paced; the final scene building to a tingling crescendo as a metaphorical British new age sets in, all accompanied by the tones of Julio Iglesias’s La Mer. A breathless triumph.

Running time: 127 mins

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