Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

For his first English language film, Swedish director Thomas Alfredson adapts John le Carré’s seminal spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for a beautifully acted and absorbing cold war thriller that is one of the best films we will see this year. This is a chill, autumnal film that perfectly suits the season, as the summer’s jumping pantomimes and fiddly 3D toy advertisements finally give way to more mature, grown-up cinema.

Opening with grainy images of a muted London in 1973, the story begins as Control (John Hurt), the head of MI6 (colloquially known as the Circus), dispatches field agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) on a secret mission to Budapest in order to convince a Hungarian army general to defect to the West. As Control explains it, the general holds a “treasure”, the identity of a mole within the Circus. Someone in the upper levels of the organisation has been sending secrets back to Karla, the Soviet’s spy master, and must be exposed before he does any more damage.

From his ramshackle flat on a sided-street, Control has narrowed down the suspects to five top men and code-named them according to the old nursery rhyme: “Tinker” for the ambitious Scot Percy Alleline (Toby Jones); “Tailor,” for the too-smooth Bill Haydon (Colin Firth); “Soldier,” for the granite-faced Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds),  “Poor Man” for the dicky-bow wearing Toby Esterhase (David Dencik); and finally “Beggarman,” for his own right-hand man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman). But Prideaux’s mission ends badly. Control is retired, falling on his sword and taking Smiley with him. Some time later, government gonk Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) brings Smiley back from the cold and asks him to take over his former boss’s investigation, operating in total secrecy from outside the bureaucratic Circus with only loyal company-man Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) to help him. At the same time, rogue junior spy Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) returns to London from a mission in Istanbul brimming with new information that might offer a clue to the mole’s identity but also makes him a target.

All the major plot points from le Carré’s source novel have been retained in the screenplay by Peter Straughan and his wife, the late Bridget O’Connor, which skilfully condenses a lengthy, labyrinthine book into two hours of riveting storytelling. The plot reshuffles some of the novel’s events, changes a few locations and invents a few new scenes, but for le Carré fans, the fundamentals are all there. There are films where hopes are formed, only to be dashed, where early promises are not kept and where a meticulous construction collapses as the last few bricks are put in place. This is not one of those films. Even more remarkably, Alfredson has pared the dialogue back to a minimum, using his actor’s expressive faces and some inspired directorial grace notes to communicate the story visually. An extended set-piece where Cumberbatch’s Guillam charms his way into the service’s secret file room to smuggle out vital documents plays out in almost total silence, capturing the essence of breathless suspense in an extraordinarily nimble balance between success and failure. A moment when we watch a train junction shift into place as Smiley puts the pieces of the puzzle together is immensely satisfying and says more in a moment than a page of lines, however cleverly written and beautifully delivered.

From a first-rate cast made up of the best British and Irish acting talent available, Oldman gives a stand-out performance; delicately shaded, masterfully controlled, flitting from light to shadow like some grey-winged moth. With his oversized glasses and buttoned-up trench-coat, Smiley maintains a careful anonymity but his poker-face hides a razor-sharp intellect with a ruthless edge. Oldman has featured in two of the biggest film franchises of the last decade – Christopher Nolan’s Batman series and the Harry Potter saga – but there’s a lingering impression that he rarely takes the lead. Well, he takes it here. He grabs it with both hands. This is a superb performance, a master class in understatement and the management of expression and silence.

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