This impeccably crafted adaptation of John le Carre’s Cold War thriller finds new resonance in an era of economic and social crisis.
Set in the murky world of British intelligence during the 1970s, retired agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is hired to find out the identity of a Soviet double-agent inside ‘the Circus’ (in house name for MI6) and solve a looming crisis.
Along with his new partner Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and an agent in hiding (Tom Hardy), Smiley focuses on a group of suspects whom their former boss (John Hurt) had given nicknames: Percy ‘Tinker’ Alleline (Toby Jones); Bill ‘Tailor’ Haydon (Colin Firth); Roy ‘Soldier’ Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Toby ‘Poor Man’ Esterhase (David Dencik).
Rather than comparing it to the acclaimed 1979 TV series with Alec Guinness as Smiley, it is better to think of this as fresh adaptation of the original novel, as it not only skilfully compresses the action into 127 minutes but also introduces some clever changes which establish a fresh version of le Carre’s world.
The screenplay by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor moves things around, but preserves the essential story inside a clever flashback structure, which along with a key Christmas party scene (not in the book) neatly fuses the themes and plot.
But it is the hiring of Swedish director Tomas Alfredson and his cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema that proves the real masterstoke.
Fresh from the success of Let The Right One In (2009), they convey the slow burn tensions of the time with a piercing outsiders eye.
The framing of shots and muted colour palette are accomplished with laser like precision, whilst the the drab horror of the Cold War and the incestuous, Oxbridge world of UK intelligence is evoked with remarkable aplomb.
This is augmented by some wonderful production design from Maria Djurkovic and costumes by Jacqueline Durran, which convincingly depict an era which can be prone to kitsch or parody.
Also worth noting is the impressive sound design by John Casali, which seems to be channelling Walter Murch’s work in The Conversation (1974) – another film where a weary protagonist tries to process a world in which appearances can be deceiving.
Alberto Iglesias’ score lends the film a distinctive mood with its sparse piano and mournful strings, whilst some of the musical choices are judged to perfection, especially a memorable montage sequence involving a Julio Igelsias version of ‘Le Mer’.
The action frequently involves a patient Smiley quietly venturing between the strange, slang-infected world of ‘the Circus’ and meeting various people with whom silence is frequently more telling than the words that come out of their mouth.
Gary Oldman is vital in making this approach work, with his tangible screen presence and deliberately restrained performance. Marking a pleasant change from the raw energy of his earlier career, he imbues Smiley with a weary, quiet dignity.
The supporting cast is crammed with stellar British acting talent: Colin Firth, John Hurt, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch are particularly excellent in smaller-than-usual roles in an ensemble which snaps together like a particularly satisfying jigsaw puzzle.
Two key supporting characters are shrewdly never shown in this version even though their presence is keenly felt. They gain greater meaning via their absence, especially as it impacts on Smiley and further stokes the themes of trust and deception.
In his writing career, le Carre managed to mine his own Cold War experiences to create lasting depictions of the simmering intrigue and tensions of a period when the world flirted with nuclear annihilation.
George Smiley has proved his most memorable character and it is striking that such a particular novel as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy can find new resonance in an era of economic disaster, intractable wars and disillusionment with established institutions.
But is this film version too good for its own good?
Upscale audiences hungry for quality fare in a cinema landscape dominated by sequels and animation will eat this up and help power it to BAFTA and Oscar recognition.
The question mark hanging over it is whether a younger audience – for whom the Cold War is ancient history – will respond to its slow pace, opaque slang and considered editing style.
For viewers weaned on a diet of quickly edited action movies or CGI-fuelled comic-book morality tales, this may seem like something from another planet.
Whilst that will come as a relief to some, it may spell problems at the box office.
But whatever its commercial fate it is true to the source material: le Carre has often provided a steady corrective to the brightly coloured fantasies of James Bond.
Where Ian Fleming gave us escapist Cold War fantasies, Le Carre provided sobering reflections on the dark secrets that power human conflict.
The story of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy drew upon the Cambridge Five spy ring and the shattering realisation that the British establishment had been deeply infiltrated by the KGB from within.
The airing of the TV serial in 1979 coincided with the shocking revelation that not only was Anthony Blunt a spy but that the British Government had been keeping this a secret for 15 years.
Some critics may resent Le Carre for what they see as a distorted version of British intelligence, though I suspect whatever the precise accuracy of his novels, they provide a telling metaphor for the closeted hypocrisies of a nation unable to deal with its diminished global status during the post-war years.
In a similar way, this film adaptation feels timely after public anger at the deceptions used to justify two wars, a banking crisis – which may still trigger an economic apocalypse – and an insular political class which seems bereft of solutions.
Alfredson’s film is a brilliantly realised version of Le Carre’s book, but whether cinema goers want to be reminded that the world is often a dark and horrible place is the kind of question which would have given George Smiley a sleepless night.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy opens in the UK on Friday 16th September and in the US on December 9th
> Official site, Facebook page and Twitter feed
> Find out more about John Le Carre, the original novel and the Cold War at Wikipedia
> Early reviews of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy after its Venice premiere
> Radio 4 interview with John le Carre about the film
> BBC News on the realism of le Carre’s world (Warning: Spoilers)