Pitch an idea for a brand new spy film that has no car chases, bloody violence or two-second cutting to a Hollywood film producer and the chances are it’ll be thrown straight in the bin. Yet here, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy we have exactly that. After years of being entertained by the James Bond franchise and more recently a new action-with-brains genre in the Bourne films, Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carré’s famous novel is the antithesis of all that we have become accustomed to – these quintessentially British spies spend the vast majority of their time sat behind a desk, not parachuting onto ski slopes or tackling giant foes with metal teeth.
The story starts in 1973, when Control (John Hurt), the head of MI6, sends Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Budapest to meet a contact – a Hungarian general who has information about a Soviet spy in the higher echelons of ‘the Circus’ (British Intelligence). The operation ends badly, with Prideaux getting shot in the back by a Hungarian agent – his fate is left for now, unexplained. Control, whose health is ailing, dies, George Smiley (Oldman) is forced into semi-retirement and it is left to Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) to become the head of the organisation with Bill Haydon (Firth) alongside aides Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). Between them, they have developed a method for apparently obtaining priceless Soviet intelligence codenamed ‘Witchcraft’ to be passed to the Americans, about which Control and Smiley had doubts.
George Smiley is brought out of retirement by Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) to investigate an allegation by Ricki Tarr (Hardy), that there is a Soviet spy at the top of MI6. Smiley assembles a team to help him with the task and begins to track down and interview former members of the organisation who left in the wake of the Budapest fiasco. The first is Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke), who was sacked by Alleline for accusing a Russian attaché of being a spy, followed by Jerry Westerby (Stephen Graham), who had been on duty the same night that Prideaux was shot – he has suspicions that Haydon was having an affair with Smiley’s wife after inconsistencies in Haydon’s story of how he heard the news. As Smiley’s investigation reveals increasingly mysterious behaviour by those now running MI6, he must move quickly to root out the mole to protect national security and prevent more secrets from leaking out.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is essentially James Bond behind a desk. John le Carré’s novel and film adaptation (including the 1979 TV mini-series starring Alec Guinness) are rooted much firmly in reality – there are no beautiful women (that’s not to say there weren’t any in the 1970s) or megalomaniacs cackling in the background. Therefore it’s important to emphasise the need for a gripping storyline that unravels logically without excessive obscurity so that we can understand where it is going and get into the minds of the characters – this is a faithful transposition from page to screen if ever there was one. The problem, if you can call it that, is the source novel is so dense with information including a vast array of characters, that to condense everything into a two-hour film is going to be one hell of a task. The first half an hour is clearly defined – we are introduced to the main protagonists and the scene is set for an intriguing journey amid the stuffy, smoky corridors of MI6. After George Smiley visits Kathy Burke’s Connie Sachs and learns of a fascinating lead, the plot becomes rather complicated and you’ll need every ounce of concentration to keep up.
The acting is absolutely top-notch. The phrase ‘an all-star cast’ is used a little too liberally these days, but with Oldman, Hurt, Strong, Hinds, Firth and Hardy on board, you know you’re in the best of company. Gary Oldman’s Smiley is unlike anything he’s ever done before – his facial expressions right down to the tone of his voice are all managed brilliantly to convey the world-weary aura of the film’s central character. As for the supporting cast, John Hurt has little to do but is at his usual best as Control, Tom Hardy does a great job of portraying rogue agent Ricki Tarr and the increasingly recognisable Toby Jones, who has a face which fits as much into a period drama as it would a fantasy film, keeps us guessing as to where his Percy Alleline’s loyalties lie. Under Tomas Alfredson’s terrific direction, the world of Cold War espionage is brought to life and we really get a sense of how this potentially deadly game of one-upmanship was fought in a drab underworld instead of the casinos of Monte Carlo.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as a stand-alone film is very difficult to comprehend on just a single viewing without being clued-up first. Reading the novel beforehand, or at the very least checking the plot, is strongly advised. The direction, acting and the feel of the whole film is perfect, but the storyline is at the heart of any good movie. It is for this reason that for all its other magnificent plus points, the plot is too perplexing to entertain throughout, save for the first half an hour or so.