Last year, shortly after the UK cinema release, 5-Word featured its first guest review; a fittingly verbose column on this film from Clare Williams (read it here). In the intro to that piece, I said that Clare would be contributing more to the site in the future, but as it turns out, we can’t afford her. You’ll just have to make do with me. But anyway, here’s Day 226.
I feel smarter after that.
After being tipped off about a mole in the upper reaches of British Intelligence, recently retired MI6 officer George Smiley is tasked with conducting a secret investigation to root out the identity of the double agent from a shortlist of four suspects, assisted by his inside man Peter Guillam. Lots of talking ensues.
Released in September 2011 to practically universal acclaim, this adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 novel from Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In) is an example of the kind of film that just doesn’t exist anymore: the truly cerebral thriller. Whether it’s an assumption that audiences just aren’t smart enough – or brave enough – to devote over two hours to a film of shadowy men talking about shadowy things, or that the studios are so caught up in the idea of demographics and opening weekends and tentpole event pictures, intelligent dramas have all but vanished from the modern-day filmic landscape.
I have never read any John le Carré books nor have I seen the BBC miniseries from 1979 so today’s column will be entirely devoid of any comparison to the source material. To be honest with you though, I really wish I had read the book beforehand. I’m a reasonably sharp-minded fella when I’m off the jesus juice, and even I had to pay extra-careful attention to this story whose constituent parts were teased out like the strands from a knot of twine, while Alfredson and screenwriting couple Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor give a masterclass in the art of making you work for your entertainment. This is a film that will undoubtedly reward multiple viewings, probably becoming an even richer experience each time as more of the careful nuances reveal themselves.
Le Carré’s characters are brought to life by three generations of British acting heavyweights; from elder statesman John Hurt as MI6 chief Control to the young guns of Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch as Tarr and Guillam, with Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Toby Jones and Ciaran Hinds as the senior men in the Circus, each one of whom gives a superlative performance. The international contingent is led by Alfredson’s compatriot David Dencik (the only actor to appear in both versions of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, incidentally) as the Hungarian émigré Toby Esterhase. Watching him on the receiving end of Smiley’s trademarked questioning technique will be a moment to savour for quite some time.
Deserving of particular praise are Cumberbatch and Oldman. While Smiley is running the mole hunt from a secret location, it is Guillam who has to go into the Circus daily and face the men he is investigating without raising their suspicions. He also gets the closest this film has to an action scene, which involves him sneaking a file from the Circus’ archives out to Smiley. It is an example of the top-flight work from all concerned that the act of putting a file in a briefcase manages to be a singularly nail-biting experience without ever even approaching ironically winking at the audience. And Oldman. The emotions and thought processes that man can convey with barely a flicker across his stoic face, it’s a remarkable piece of work. Others have managed to put it for eloquently than I, but suffice it to say that every single award he was nominated for was completely earned.
It’s not just the actors bringing their A-game though; everything from production design to costumes and hair is perfectly matched to the period in which the story takes place, whether it’s the deceptively drab Circus HQ, or the fantastically carpeted hotel where the mole hunt is based. If I haven’t made it abundantly clear yet, Tinker Tailor is a bravura piece of filmmaking from top to bottom. Unfortunately the Blu-Ray I rented has not had nearly as much attention lavished upon it. While the film itself looks and sounds magnificent in hi-def, the complete lack of any supplemental material whatsoever is almost unforgivable. Also, the scene selection menu totally gives away who the mole turns out to be.
If Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has only one legacy, let it be that its financial and critical success is proof that we, the movie-watching public, are not nearly as dumb as we look. Well, most of us anyway.