Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Written by  //  September 24, 2011  //  Media & Popular Culture  //  2 Comments

[A guest review by Parag Sayta]

He wears thick glasses and beige suits, has a slight melancholy air and resembles a nondescript, mid-level bureaucrat. But don’t be fooled by his unassuming, taciturn visage, for George Smiley, the retired intelligence officer has been given the grave responsibility of finding a mole: a traitor to the West’s cause in its fight against the Soviet Other, at the uppermost echelons of the British secret service.

Set in the grim, dour London of the ‘70s, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a story revolving around the lives of secret agents and their shadowy games of deceit and subterfuge, played out in dark, damp rooms of an archetypal post-war government office. George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is the protagonist, at once the chess player scrapping his way through an especially difficult end game and the mendicant trying to come to terms with the dilemmas and tribulations of his own life. Called back to the Circus (the name given to the MI6 headquarters) from retirement, whence he was once banished in disgrace, he sets about his task in right earnest. For this is his chance at redemption, even retribution, for things that went so horribly wrong the previous year and ended his career. Smiley and his boss Control (John Hurt) partook in a horrible misadventure in Budapest, Hungary (then firmly on the other side of the Iron Curtain) while hunting for a mole in their midst. This results in the capture of one of its agents, acute embarrassment for the British Government and, as a result of internecine departmental machinations, the rolling of Control and Smiley’s heads.

The chance for revenge arrives serendipitously, when Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), a junior agent in Istanbul finds out about the mole, during the course of a rendezvous with an attractive, disgruntled Russian agent. Fearing for his life after a series of sinister events, Tarr decides to place an anonymous call to the Permanent Secretary and tells him of his discovery. Recalling his previous suspicions surrounding a double agent, the Permanent Secretary asks Smiley, the insider-turned-outsider, to lead the mission. Smiley enlists the support of the wide eyed Young Turk Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Ricki Tarr’s superior, who is outside the clique of suspects, to resolve the mystery.

The characters of the four chief suspects are masterfully developed through their interactions with each other and their interactions with Smiley, disclosed partly through flashback. Through the languidly revealed plot, we learn about the personalities of “Tinker” Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), “Tailor” Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), “Soldier” Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and “Poorman” Toby Esterhase (David Denick). As Smiley the “Spy” mulls over them, sizing them up, so do we. We get to know Tinker, the Calvinist Scot who through resourcefulness and enterprise replaces Control at the top of the Circus; Tailor, the suave public schoolboy from the English Shires; Soldier, the dogged, pugnacious British bulldog; and Poorman, the bundle of nerves constantly looking over his shoulder. Then there is Smiley’s bête noir Karla: the omniscient, Machiavellian Russian agent. Karla is the film’s invisible presence, its Moriarty, constantly engaged in a game of intellectual callisthenics against Smiley’s Sherlock. Smiley has to use his considerable analytical prowess and clairvoyance to overcome various obstacles and find the culprit, as the movie moves towards its gripping climax.

The movie, like the book, is certainly not a conventional spy thriller. Preferring substance over bling, it demands, and ultimately rewards the viewers’ attention. Not the sleek, smooth operatives who order their martinis shaken, not stirred; its portrayal of shifty, often bumptious spies with diverse motivations and interests appears authentic.

Tomas Alfredson proves to be an inspired choice as director. The Swede, whose previous directorial venture, Let the Right One In received much critical acclaim had difficult task of condensing a labyrinthine book into a two hour motion picture. He not only convincingly delivers a slick narration of the basic plot, but goes beyond that and adds some imaginative flourishes of his own. One can only marvel at the brilliant use of the office Christmas party for workers at the Circus, revealed in flashback throughout the film, complete with Santa Claus dressed as Stalin and a rousing rendition of the Soviet National Anthem. Or the more subtle, but equally effective scenes where the changing of railway tracks outside the hotel where Smiley stays is used as a metaphor for the shifts in Smiley’s thought process.

Alfredson is more than ably helped by the acting—an ensemble of the finest (male) British talent. The actors all slip into their roles effortlessly, conveying the follies and foibles of the characters that they portray. A special word for Gary Oldman. With his calmness, reserve and the ever-so-slightly quivering stiff upper lip, Smiley– rather than James Bond, is the most authentic caricature of the quintessential British spy and Oldman personifies him flawlessly.

The cinematography matches the tone of the film: not quite noir, but straddling between various shades of grey. Even the music is in sync with the rhythm and cadence of the movie: the understated score is perfectly pitched, nowhere more so than during moments when the music gives way to silence.

My only criticism is the slightly abrupt dénouement, where the antagonist, when confronted by Smiley, couches his betrayal as “an aesthetic choice” because “the West has become ugly”. A fuller justification, perhaps through a lengthier dialogue, may have done more justice to the movie.

That minor quibble aside, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a triumph because it manages to capture the essence of both John Le Carré’s novel and John Irvin’s iconic serialised adaptation for the BBC in 1979. It does so with aplomb and élan, adding flourishes of its own, profiting from both new-age cinematic techniques and the benefit of post-Cold War hindsight. In doing so, it manages to carry both the aficionado and the layman along. Don’t miss it.

2 Comments on "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)"

  1. Harsh October 12, 2011 at 7:43 am ·

    Wonderful review Mr. Sayta, I hope more movies hold your attention and we are served with such good reviews ! the cast does look impressive !

  2. Danish Sheikh January 2, 2012 at 7:40 am ·

    While a lot of the movie was certainly very tasteful, I thought the screenplay was just frustratingly dense, and the overt-subtlety of directorial choices increased my general sense of bewilderment while watching it. I like movies with complex plots that don’t spoonfeed you – but with this one just felt like a laborious exercise way too often. Perhaps someone with knowledge of the book might enjoy it more, but as someone who had no idea about the plot before coming in, I was just left increasingly angry by the opaqueness of the film-making.

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