Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a tense, dramatic and exciting experience cloaked in Cold War paranoia that immerses you in its labyrinthine mystery.
Based on John le Carre’s novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy simmers with slow-burning tension in seventies London as British Intelligence, led by veteran agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman), scurries around with patient finesse to find the alleged mole planted within its ranks. Directed by Let The Right One In filmmaker Tomas Alfredson, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a celebration of cinema at its most refined while having the unhurried pace of classic Hollywood film noir. Although devoid of the genre’s femme fatale (unless Kathy Burke’s Connie Sachs fits the bill) the film is shot in washed-out monotones, painting each and every scene with a prosaic perfection as if the swinging sixties never happened. If nothing else, Alfredson’s film could be framed on the wall as a piece of fine art. Yet, thankfully, there’s plenty of meat on its pristine bones.
In 1973, the Cold War casting an uneasy shadow across the politics that split East from West, Control, the head of British Intelligence (known as the Circus) sends Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) on a mission to Hungary to meet a general who wishes to sell information. The operation is a failure. Prideaux is shot by Soviet intelligence and either killed or captured. In the ensuing confusion, Control and his right-hand man George Smiley are forced into retirement. Due to ill health Control dies and Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) takes over duties as the new Chief of the Circus. However, following an allegation from agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) concerning a long-term mole established at the very heights of the secret service, Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), a civil servant in charge of intelligence, hires George Smiley to investigate.
Alfredson’s film could be framed on the wall as a piece of fine art.
Audiences might remember the television series starring Alec Guinness that told le Carre’s story across seven episodes. Arguably, such a complex plot would benefit from the more episodic and structured nature of a television series. But Alfredson’s film manages to remain suitably complicated while immersing viewers in a narrative that favours themes, ambience and performance. It is therefore gripping and hugely entertaining thanks to its labyrinthine mystery, its overpowering sense of Cold War paranoia, Alfredson’s composed and unobtrusive photography, and the performances of some of Britain’s finest actors.
Leading the cast is Gary Oldman, a man of seemingly unending talent who has the ability to play a multitude of roles. It is great seeing Oldman take the lead, he usually shies away from mainstream productions and if he does sign up for a blockbuster he’s often playing second fiddle to a dashing leading man. It isn’t that he has it all his own way in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy given the ensemble cast that includes the wonderful John Hurt and the charismatic Colin Firth, but he does have the crucial role of George Smiley. And he’s superb – reserved and considered, he has a physical power that emanates from eyes that are framed by rotund spectacles.
And it is in the framing that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy excels. Every shot composed by Alfredson with director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema is meticulously detailed with a flawless sense of period setting. From costume and set design to exterior shots and the almost invisible pieces of miscellaneous decoration dotted around homes and office buildings, everything has a place as if Alfredson has painstakingly constructed each single frame with the devoted eye of an oil painter piecing together every last millimetre of visual space.
Gary Oldman is superb – reserved and considered, he has a physical power that emanates from eyes that are framed by rotund spectacles.
And while some have criticised the ending for arriving with a whimper instead of a bang, it is perfectly in keeping with the restrained and cautious pace of both the plot and Smiley’s investigation. Smiley pieces together the facts with effortless finesse, this isn’t James Bond flying through the upper windows of a foreign embassy in a shoulder-mounted jet pack. If you ever saw the ultra calm Smiley breaking a sweat it is probably because you’ve mistaken droplets of water for perspiration before he’s had a chance to pat himself dry following a relaxing and well-deserved bath. The mystery’s conclusion is a fitting way to end Smiley’s investigation and yet Alfredson still has a few surprises up his sleeve.
Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is a bold and brilliant British film that is constructed with the delicacy of a filmmaker who masterfully conceives of every shot and every scene with a perfectionist’s eye for detail. Technically the film is flawless – from the performances to the cinematography to the set design to the musical score – nothing feels out of place. Tense, dramatic and exciting, Alfredson’s film’s immersive sense of paranoia and distrust is enough to bundle you cosily up in its labyrinthine plot as the mystery slowly unfolds.
Review by Daniel Stephens