Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Directed by: Tomas Alfredson
Written by:Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan
Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Benedit Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, Kathy Burke
Released: January 19, 2012
Grade: A-

Traditionally, the most popular spy movies have revolved around super cool guys with super cool gadgets.  I speak of James Bond, Ethan Hunt and Jason Bourne.  Unfortunately, the life of a real spy isn’t as glamorous.  The folk within the CIA and MI6 must quietly chuckle when they see Bond sipping on his martinis or sleeping with a beautiful woman.

Based on the novel by John le Carré, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy provides a gloomier, more realistic version of life inside the British Secret Intelligence Service, referred to in the film as the Circus.  The story is set in the early 1970s and broadly focuses on British attempts to infiltrate Soviet intelligence.  It’s also a chance to boost their credibility with their United States counterparts.

Unfortunately, the British Government believe there is a “mole” at the top of Circus who has been feeding highly classified documents to the Soviets.  They have selected the recently retired George Smiley (Oldman) to lead a hush-hush investigation and identify the spy.  He will work out of an old apartment building and will be fed information through a young agent (Cumberbatch) working inside the Circus office.

Four key suspects have been identified and they have been codenamed Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and Poorman.  As you can imagine, it won’t be an easy assignment.  These guys have ascended to the top of the Circus because they are already experts in trickery and deception.  Smiley’s biggest asset will be the secrecy of his investigation.  If these four don’t know they are being monitored, perhaps one of them will slip up.

Gary Oldman is an actor with a wide, impressive resume.  He’s starred in numerous Hollywood blockbusters (the Harry Potter series, the new Batman franchise) and he’s leant his voice to several animated features (Kung Fu Panda 2, Planet 51).  He’s more widely known however as playing the “bad guy”.  I speak of movies such as JFK, The Fifth Element, Air Force One and The Contender.  It’s hard to believe he hasn’t earned a single Academy Award nomination.

Perhaps that’s about to change.  With his greyed hair and thick, nerdish glasses, Oldman is brilliant as George Smiley.  Director Tomas Alfredson describes Smiley as a person “you’d immediately forget if you saw him on the street” and yet somehow, Oldman makes the character so interesting!  He’s the kind of guy who always keeps his emotions in check and hardly says a word.  He’s become an expert at listening to others and watching their body language for any sign of vulnerability.

Despite his success within the profession, Smiley is still a guy you’ll feel sorry for.  His wife recently left him and he now lives alone in a tired, run-down flat.  You don’t tend to make too many close friends when you live the life of a spy.  It’s a lonely existence.  The fact that he’s been called out of retirement has provided a dash of reinvigoration but it has also brought back some old, not-so-great memories.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy marks the first English language film for Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In).  I was particularly impressed with by the costume design and set decoration.  The heavy use of darker colours, such as brown and grey, suit the film’s ominous tone.  The curious office design within Circus is also likely to get your attention.

Some may remember an earlier adaptation of le Carré’s novel.  A five hour mini-series was made by the BBC in 1979 with Alec Guinness in the leading role.  Screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan faced a tougher challenge condensing the story into just two hours for this feature film but they’ve done as well as can be expected.  The only negative is that you don’t get to know all the characters (and there are a lot of them) as well as you’d like.

If you enjoy an intelligent, realistic spy thriller, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not to be missed.

You can read my interview with star Gary Oldman by clicking here.