Film Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Devotees of le Carré and the renowned 1979 BBC miniseries will admire this atmospheric and beautifully lensed feature adaptation of the novelist’s classic Cold War thriller.

When BBC Films lately made Brideshead Revisited into a 100-minute movie, the result was equally disappointing to admirers of Evelyn Waugh’s prose and John Mortimer’s acclaimed telescript. Working Title’s two-hour version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy would seem destined for a similar fate. The BBC had turned the espionage thriller, generally considered to be John le Carré’s masterpiece, into a five-hour miniseries in 1979, a much-admired “love story to a fading British establishment,” to quote the great le Carré himself, with Alec Guinness delivering an iconic performance as master-spy George Smiley. Could talented producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, Frost/Nixon) possibly condense the complicated novel into a satisfying feature-length entertainment?

“He said he wanted us to make it as a period piece, but that we must reinterpret it,” Bevan has said, referring to le Carré, who served as an executive producer on the film. Though not a catchy endorsement, it’s an accurate description of the picture. Working Title’s Tinker, Tailor goes to great lengths to evoke Britain (and Eastern Europe) in the early 1970s, when men still wore three-piece suits but not trilbies. London was stained with nicotine, the British were worried about Russian infiltration and American influence, and MI6 spies tasked with homeland security gathered intelligence on reel-to-reel tape, the information duly transcribed and stored away in tattered files deep inside Baroque monuments to a dying Empire. Production designer Maria Djurkovic (The Hours, Billy Elliot, Mamma Mia!) captures all this brilliantly. Indeed, she could be said to deliver the best performance in the film.

The second best would be Gary Oldman who, as Smiley, nods to Guinness before recreating the character in his own image. Oldman’s Smiley broods—in one haunting scene, the actor delivers a melancholic monologue about his close encounter with his arch-nemesis, the Russian spy code-named Karla—but then again, he has reason to. Smiley is a disappointed and lonely man, having been dismissed from the Circus, as insiders call MI6, and abandoned by his wife. Tinker, Tailor, beyond being a vintage spy yarn, is the story of Smiley’s redemption and a meditation on loyalty and fidelity.

That story opens with Control (John Hurt), the director of MI6, sending one of his trusted agents to Hungary to vet a potential defector about the identity of a rumored mole inside the British intelligence community. The mission goes terribly awry, and Control and his closest deputies are forced out of the agency. When Control is found dead, the government minister (Simon McBurney) with oversight over the Circus secretly recruits Smiley to flush out the mole, who almost certainly is one of MI6’s four top spies (code-named Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and Poor Man, after the nursery rhyme) or, paradoxically, Smiley himself.

The gang of four, played by Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds and David Dencik, have relatively small roles in the movie, appearing for the most part in scenes that take place in the wonderfully imagined safe room in the bowels of Circus headquarters. John Hurt, likewise, is on screen for but a few moments of exposition at the start of the film and during flashbacks to an office Christmas party that fill in plot points—one of several elements invented by screenwriters Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor, to whom the film is dedicated. Tom Hardy stands out as Ricki Tarr, a field operative with special knowledge about the mole, and Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch are well-cast as agents Jim Prideaux and Peter Guillam, two names that Tinker, Tailor fans will recognize.

Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, seemingly an odd choice to helm a quintessentially British movie, brings the same eerie dread and cold paranoia that made his stylish horror film, Let the Right One In, an international hit. Alfredson has a knack for finding the telling detail—a drop of sweat from a waiter’s brow—that evokes the essence of a scene. He also keeps the narrative moving along at a high rate of speed, a necessary evil given time constraints, so much so that viewers unfamiliar with the book will have little time to savor any particular scene or performance. On the other hand, aficionados of the novel and miniseries will appreciate several gestures intended as homage to both prior works.

In the end, Alfredson’s ability to establish mood and place turns out to be an effective way to tell a complicated tale. Even when the action gets confusing, we always feel we know what’s happening, not unlike Smiley’s unerring instinct for the truth.