The first thing you need to to know about ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John Le Carre’s classic espionage novel, is that it has virtually nothing in common with James Bond.
Secondly, the film bears absolutely no resemblance to Jason Bourne. In fact, forget about Bond and Bourne for the moment, because ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ introduces the new face of spy movies: middle-aged, bespectacled George Smiley.
It might be more appropriate to say “reintroduces” – Smiley has a long history on the screen, most notably as portrayed by Alec Guinness in the 1979 BBC version of ‘Tinker Tailor’. Indeed, mention the name “George Smiley” to someone who recalls the late-1970s and you will almost certainly be regaled with a glowing tribute to a show which, even today, is hailed as the pinnacle of British television. With this long-awaited cinematic version, director Alfredson was stepping into a rather large pair of shoes.
Set at the height of the Cold War in the 1970s, the film begins with a British agent being double-crossed during an operation, leading the higher-ups back at “the Circus” (Le Carre jargon for MI6) to conclude that there is a mole in the service ferrying information to the Russians.
The suspects, all senior espionage officers, are codenamed Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Poorman, and Spy; the latter being George Smiley himself, brought out of enforced retirement to investigate. It might sound a bit complicated, but this film rewards complete, undivided attention – take popcorn into the cinema at your peril.
One such reward is Gary Oldman as Smiley. Those who know Oldman as Sirius Black or Commissioner Gordon will find him totally unrecognisable here; he is virtually motionless, with a dart of the eye or twitch of the mouth providing the only hints as to what is going on inside Smiley’s logical, manipulative mind.
Oldman’s subtle performance ensures that, despite showing emotion just twice, Smiley remains captivating even at his stillest. And it’s not just Oldman on top form, with Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong comprising an astounding crop of the best British actors working in cinema. They aren’t given quite enough screen time, but Alfredson ensures that all the supporting cast enter outstanding performances.
The Swedish director deserves credit for creating a film in which dialogue takes a back seat to the director’s vision; individual frames could sit comfortably on the walls of an art gallery.
Especially worthy of comment are the gloomy, perpetually-overcast portrayal of London (good old English weather) and the introduction of Smiley over the opening credits, both of which perfectly illustrate the sense of isolation, uncertainty and paranoia that defined Cold War England.
One of the finest films of 2011, ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ is must-see cinema. And, since the novel is the first of a trilogy, it looks like we haven’t seen the last of Mr Smiley just yet.