Today: February 23, 2024
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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

With the world in the grip of recession and former KGB-men being poisoned in London restaurants, ex-spy John Le Carre’s classic novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy feels as relevant now as it did in the ‘70s. The chilliest of Cold War thrillers, Tomas Alfredson’s masterful film faithfully distils Le Carre’s labyrinthine plot, condensing it into just over two hours of deadly office politics.

With the world in the grip of recession
and former KGB-men being poisoned in London restaurants, ex-spy John Le Carre’s
classic novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy feels as relevant now as it did in the
‘70s. The chilliest of Cold War
thrillers, Tomas Alfredson’s masterful film faithfully distils Le Carre’s
labyrinthine plot, condensing it into just over two hours of deadly office
politics.

It’s 1973 and
when a botched operation in Budapest goes bloodily wrong, leaving agent Jim Prideaux
(Mark Strong) shot in the back,
legendary spymaster Control (John Hurt),
head of ‘the Circus’ (MI6) is forced to retire in disgrace, taking with him his
heir apparent, the mild-mannered, cerebral George Smiley (Gary Oldman). But when
rogue agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy)
surfaces in London with evidence that a Soviet mole has infiltrated the Circus
at the highest level, Whitehall mandarin Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) secretly brings Smiley back in from the cold and
charges him with finding out which of the Circus’ high-fliers is the traitor;
new chief Percy Alleline (Toby Jones),
his right-hand man Roy Bland (Ciaran
Hinds
), the backstabbing Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) and suave, charismatic, ladies man Bill Haydon (Colin Firth). Aided by Tarr’s young section chief Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley enters
the proverbial “wilderness of mirrors” where love, loyalty and friendships are
commodities to be traded and exploited intent on exposing the double agent
whatever the cost.

Eschewing the cartoon
heroics of Bond and the breathless momentum of Bourne, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is grounded in the far from glamorous
day-to-day tedium and gnawing paranoia of the spy world, a world where heroes
are shot in the back and ‘assets’ are sacrificed like pawns. The scene where Guillam must steal a
file from the records department is a nerve-shredding masterpiece of tension,
paranoia and underlying menace, the equal of any Bond set-piece, where
discovery means torture and death.
But on paper, it’s just a guy taking some work home with him. Violence is sudden, shocking, fatal,
all the more so because we rarely see the acts themselves just the aftermath; a
man gutted in a bath, the flies swarming around a bloody wound, a girl’s brains
on a wall.

This is a film
about betrayal; betrayal of country, betrayal of a colleague, a friend, a
lover, betrayal of ideals.
Betrayal of self. But it’s
also a film about the human cost of that betrayal. Ambitious men sacrifice their mentors. Secrets are traded. An innocent woman is shot in the face,
baby still nursing at her breast.
Tarr uses love to coerce asset Irina, losing himself, damning himself,
in the process. A broken Prideaux
hides from a truth he doesn’t want to face. Guillam brutally ends an affair rather than allow himself
the weakness of a relationship.
Smiley unflinchingly manipulates allies and enemies alike, betraying his
own principles. The world of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a world
where no-one can be trusted, least of all the face in the mirror. Only the traitor remains true to
themselves. The horrific office
Christmas party, featuring all the principals, the film flashes back to
repeatedly could be the Grace Bros. office party but it offers all the answers
if the characters were only willing to see them.

The rich period
setting perfectly captures the grey ‘70s milieu of Le Carre’s world where grim,
grey men operate in the shadows, jockeying for power and stabbing each other in
the back, as much vampires as the protagonist of Alfredson’s previous film Let The Right One In. Washed-out greys and browns dominate
the film, recalling paranoid classics The
Ipcress File
or The Conversation,
the only respite the lush verdant greens of the ponds where Smiley relaxes by
swimming. The bug-eyed Citroens,
Guillam’s dandy suits, Haydon’s casual sexism, Tarr’s sheepskin like the
reassuringly clunky technology of the film (solid Steenbecks and reel-to-reel
tapes) ground the film in a half-remembered reality, untainted by nostalgia.

Oldman is
fantastic as Smiley in a masterful, subtle, restrained performance, perfectly
capturing the character’s repressed nature (this is a man who eats a Wimpy with
a knife and fork) and his razor-keen intelligence. He doesn’t speak for the first 20 or so minutes of the film
but his silence is deafening. He
draws you in, dominating while never suffocating the other actors. After Bronsan and Inception it
almost goes without saying how good Tom Hardy is but here he brings a softness
and vulnerability to the guilt-ridden Tarr, a thug redeemed and haunted by
love, that’s heartbreaking. Firth
is surprisingly good as the charismatic Haydon, a likeable lounge lizard who
says and does what he wants and has enormous fun doing it, David Dencik is
loathsomely sympathetic as Esterhase, a man who betrays everyone around him to
get ahead (but does that make him a traitor) while Toby Jones is eminently
punchable as the smug, wheedling Alleline.

While Hurt and
Burke possibly have too much screen time, chewing the scenery around them and Strong’s
wounded Prideaux doesn’t get enough, the real revelation is TV Sherlock Cumberbatch who has never been
better delivering a complex, layered, nuanced performance as Guillam, a man
forced to near breaking point by having to juggle personal and professional
loyalties.

Bleak, cerebral,
melancholic and totally absorbing, Tinker
Tailor Soldier Spy

is
heartbreakingly good.

David Watson

David Watson is a screenwriter, journalist and 'manny' who, depending on time of day and alcohol intake could be described as a likeable misanthrope or a carnaptious bampot. He loves about 96% of you but there's at least 4% he'd definitely eat in the event of a plane crash. Email: david.watson@filmjuice.com

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