Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (France/United Kingdom, 2012)
Directed by: Tomas Alfredson
Written by: Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan, based on the book by John le Carré
Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch
Swedish director Tomas Alfredson first came to international prominence with the 2008 romantic drama Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In), a tender teenage love story in which one of the teenagers also happens to be a vampire. With innovative use of depth-of-field and bokeh to capture Stockholm’s snowy suburbs in the depth of winter, Alfredson and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema produced one of the most visually stunning films in recent memory.
Then, as often happens when a young European director finds success on the world stage, Alfredson was tapped to direct his first major English-language studio picture; in this case, an adaptation of John le Carré’s Cold War spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a work whose sophistication and intelligence lies in stark contrast to the high-octane, technology-heavy espionage of Ian Fleming and Tom Clancy.
George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is an MI6 agent who – with his doughy physique, grey hair, large-frame glasses, reserved nature and unfaithful wife – is as far from James Bond as a spy could ever be, a paragon of integrity and studious dedication to the motherland with nary a martini or Balkan harlot in sight. After a botched covert operation in Budapest finds agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) shot, Smiley is enlisted to investigate allegations of a mole in the upper echelons of the agency headed by Control (John Hurt).
Suspicion falls on four high-ranking members: Percy Alleline, codename “Tinker” (Toby Jones); Bill Haydon, “Tailor” (Colin Firth); Roy Bland, “Soldier” (Ciarán Hinds); and Toby Esterhase, “Poorman” (David Dencik); and with the help of two young agents, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), Smiley unravels the labyrinthine plot with the steady nerve and sensible haircut of a British public servant.
The story seems well suited to Alfredson’s style with its complex, duplicitous subtext and grubby 1970s London and Budapest locales, but the adaptation written by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan with input from le Carré himself attempts to distill down to two hours a story which took a British television mini-series five hours to tell.
Consequently, the film is disorientingly complex and lies in a constant state of unrest, concerned only with reaching the next plot point. Themes of trust, information flow, personal conflict and intra-agency tension allow for a broadly satisfying spy noir premise, but crucial information is deliberately withheld to increase tension in a distractingly transparent manner, and by the time the plot is resolved it has completely steamrolled the emotional climax of the film.
Similarly, there is little room for the visual flourish Alfredson and van Hoytema demonstrated with their previous collaboration, which makes way for long lenses and voyeuristic compositions to emulate the stealthy aesthetic of films such as The Conversation, Day of the Jackal and the work of Jean-Pierre Melville. This restrained visual style allows attention to be focused on the wonderful variety of top-class British actors who fill even the most minor of roles, and the incredibly detailed production design which lends the film an air of historical accuracy.
But given the promise of an intelligent Cold War spy mystery, directed by one of world cinema’s most exciting talents and featuring a cast that reads like a who’s who of British acting craft, it’s hard not to feel like it could have achieved so much more.
Le Carré has written 22 novels over the span of five decades, five of which feature the character George Smiley in a major role, so Alfredson’s adaptation may herald the dawn of a new spy movie series to rival James Bond’s cookie-cutter brand of high-stakes international intrigue. And if for no other reason than that, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is already a success.