In converting John le Carré’s labyrinthine spy novel to the big screen, Swedish director Tomas Alfredson has achieved much. His previous film – the carefully constructed, stark horror drama Let the Right One In – garnered him a lot of international attention. This, his first English-language feature, proves that attention was warranted.
His Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a coiled, terse, patient film; drenched in atmosphere and happy to be subtle where less confident pictures would blow up a building or disappear in a hail of gunfire. This is a thriller in the old fashioned sense of the word – where the thrills are generally understated, navigated with words rather than bullets.
Those familiar with the book will have an easier time of it from the start, but this is not intended as a criticism of the film. Things begin in ostensibly slow fashion, but the film is covertly establishing details and supporting characters as much as it is atmosphere. In general, it rewards those willing to pay attention, particularly in this densely packed first act.
As things settle down we are introduced to protagonist George Smiley (Gary Oldman), who remains mute in the opening scenes, coldly taking in his surroundings. He is a semi-retired British spy brought back into the fold by Control (John Hurt), who believes that a Russian double agent is operating out of the Circus – a building from which top secret espionage activity is carried out. As time goes by, we realise that the possibility of there being a spy is far from paranoid guesswork – this isn’t the first time the warning bells have been sounded.
Smiley is called upon to delve into the workings of the Circus’ old guard – a generation of high-ranking spooks with whom he has worked for decades. Oldman plays Smiley in the spirit of the film – calm and collected, but nervy. We seem him often from behind, the subtle twinges in his neck giving away an underlying sense of insecurity. That sensibility is echoed in Alfredson’s direction, which at times restricts our view by peering through windows or railings.
The Circus’ top brass are a collection of agents, all of whom show vulnerability in differing, very nuanced ways. They make for a convincing group of ageing spies – we sense that a great deal of unseen past exists between them. This believability is generated thanks to a raft of pitch-perfect performances from an overwhelmingly good cast. Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciarán Hinds; it’s an honours list of British actors currently on top form, and the casting more than pays off. And that’s without mentioning smaller supporting roles from the likes of Kathy Burke and Stephen Graham.
Technically the film is excellent. Alfredson’s direction is unhurried, moody and subtle, and that is backed up by Alberto Iglesias’ gently brooding score. The framing and attention to detail lend the film a similar preciseness to Let the Right One In, and the editing handles the film’s twisting, layered narrative well. You’ll be unsure at times, but that is part of the film’s intention, not a failing of the script or structure.
There are minor frustrations. The film’s exquisitely constructed atmosphere rarely summons up the level of threat or tension that is feels like it could have done, while the denouement left me a little cold. Eventual revelations are subtle and well devised – in keeping with the film’s style – but that approach means the film lacks a cathartic final bow, or an emotional punch. This also means that the motivations of the antagonist are not given quite enough time or weight.
But these are minor quibbles against what is a very well made thriller. Its film noir sensibilities work a treat, and Alfredson helms his expansive cast with great adeptness. Many thought the 1979 BBC production of the novel precluded the need for a feature film, but Le Carré himself has commended the efforts of all involved in this adaptation, and he was right to do so.