TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY
Director: Thomas Alfredson
Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciaran Hinds, David Dencik and Kathy Burke.
BBFC Cert: 15
When, in 1961, a young MI-6 operative sat down to pen his first novel under the alias John Le Carre, he had a clear goal in mind. Frustrated by the sexiness and certainty of Ian Flemming’s bed hopping superspy James Bond, he wanted to write something closer to the lives of the spies he knew: lonesome existences on the fringes of power, with more time spent filing paperwork than shooting baddies or humping air-hostesses. The resultant novel, Call for the Dead, introduced the world to George Smiley who would be at the centre of 4 more Le Carre novels, most famously Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. This latest adaptation of Tinker, Tailor…, from Let the Right One In director Thomas Alfredson, comes to DVD the week after its star Gary Oldman was given a surprising Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Smiley.
Tinker, Tailor… begins in 1973 with Control (Hurt) – the head of British Intelligence – sending an agent named Prideaux (Strong) to Budapest to purchase information from a Hungarian general. The meeting goes bad quickly and Prideaux is shot in the ensuing chaos. As a result Control is relieved of his duties as is his right hand man, the tight lipped George Smiley. Benefiting from this change in power are Percy Alleine (Jones) who takes over as Head of Intelligence, Bill Haydon (Firth) who becomes his second-in-command plus Roy Bland (Hinds) and Toby Esterhas (Dencik), his closest allies. These four have been delivering top level intelligence from a Soviet source known only as “Witchcraft”, winning them friends in the American Secret Service. Smiley is called out of retirement, however, by Civil Servant Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) when estranged operative Ricki Tarr (Hardy) comes forward with information indicating that a double agent is working at the top of British Intelligence. Smiley quickly deduces it must be one of the Witchcraft four and sets to work piecing together the various shreds of information and dis-information in a labyrinth plot that goes right to the heart of his profession.
Critically acclaimed as it has been it is probably fair to begin with what Tinker, Tailor… does well and, undeniably, Alfredson has stayed true to the intention of Le Carre’s novels. The Swedish director delivers that sense of a war being fought not by men of action but by men of inaction — watchers, loners, voyeurs. Their weapons are not pistols and bombs but lies, misinformation and doubt. In fact when they try and become men of action, when they have, as Smiley says admonishingly to Tarr, “tried to do something”, things spill quickly out of control. Their job is to observe, note, analyse and pass on. This almost paralytic reluctance to react extends to all areas of their lives. These are men so stricken with dormancy that even when their own wives are being fondled in front of them the thought of taking action barely occurs. As Kathy Burke’s retired agent remarks to Smiley as they watch two young students canoodling on a sofa “I feel severely under-fucked.” These people are not participants in life but spectators. All of which the film handles very well.
What Tinker, Tailor… does not do so well is……well, everything else. Most damningly there is the narrative or, more accurately the narratives. The script, by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, lays plot on top of counter plot, character on top of character, with a seemingly endless gluttony for adding more and more to the story. The result is an overstuffed narrative with little intrigue amidst all the information. It cannot accurately be described as a thriller because it has few thrills. It cannot accurately be described as a mystery because there is little tension in the manner in which the mystery is solved. People look at files, people listen to phone conversations, people smoke cigarettes then at the end Smiley points to one of the guys and says: it’s him. When the great reveal of the villain comes it is neither surprising nor satisfying. It literally could have been anyone else and the drama would have weighed the same.
The much praised acting is fine as far as it goes, yet the script only lets it go so far. Despite the thematic strength of the film we never truly get below the surface level emotionally, never feel we are in these people’s shoes.
Of course, that won’t stop it from taking home at least four of the eleven BAFTAs it’s up for and perhaps that’s fair enough. British critics needed a “Great British Film” this year and most of them had decided it would be Tinker, Tailor… on the strength of the excellent trailer alone. Pity the actual film turned out to be such a bloated bore.