Whenever poring through lists of best spy books ever made on the web, there is a recurring novel (or two in fact) which seem to result very high in everyone’s lists; the first being John Le Carré’s cold war masterpiece Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy alongside one of his earlier works, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The latter was made into a decent film in 1965 with Richard Burton playing tough agent Alec Leamas, so it was about time for Le Carré’s greatest work Tinker Tailor to get the same big screen treatment. And boy was it worth the wait.
Forgetting the superb BBC miniseries with Alec Guinness (a master adaptation – having the time to truly allow the plot to unfold), this latest two hour feature is a whiff a fresh air amidst the blood-pumping action fests which have littered the spy genre (albeit with brilliance for the Bourne trilogy) for the last decade.
The story follows George Smiley, an unassuming spymaster who worked as the number two man at MI6 (or the Circus – named after its base in Cambridge Circus in London) before his enforced dismissal alongside his craggy old boss Control, as he is brought out of retirement to sniff out a Soviet mole who has infiltrated the British intelligence top brass. He recruits his own men to aid him in the tricky task, Peter Guillam, a rather dapper fellow who is head of the Scalphunters (the section responsible for burglary, kidnap, assassination etc), and an old Special Branch agent, Mendel. After catching wind that Control was also starting an investigation of his own into the possibility of a double agent, the men retread his steps and uncover that he had five suspects all codenamed after the nursery rhyme Tinker Tailor: Percy Alleline – Chief of Operations, Tinker; Bill Haydon – Head of London Station, Tailor; Roy Bland – Head of Networks, Soldier; Toby Esterhase – Head of Lamplighter Division, Poorman, and the bespectacled spymaster himself, George Smiley as Beggarman. And so begins the hunt for the mole.
Having Tomas Alfredson, the Swede behind 2009’s cult sleep-hit Let The Right One In, as director for this intelligent thriller is a stroke of genius. The man has already demonstrated his ability to capture essence and tone in his vampire tale and shows he doesn’t require adrenalin-injections or big-budget effects to keep the audience enraptured. The plodding pace is actually a plus in such a tale, especially when the atmosphere of a bygone age is so beautifully caught, with austere smoke-filled corridors, dark mahogany libraries, dishevelled old railway points, cluttered homesteads and flea-ridden hotels. But what is most absorbing about this atmospheric essence are the props (or use of) rather than places – an old oil lighter with inscription, a vintage set of glasses lenses used by opticians, a saucer being carried over the tea cup to prevent spillage, a newly-serviced Alvis Roadster dragging around a Somerset playing field – it is these delights that can be soaked up and revelled amidst this serious and uncompromising film. Of course, the media grapevine is already salivating with Oscar buzz at this latest Le Carré rendition, and I would be remiss if I neglected to mention the impeccable acting from the who’s who of British talent. Big breath required - Gary Oldman needs no introduction, the character actor has donned the spectacles and taken to hefty silences and brainstorming genius as George Smiley, the thinking man’s hero, John Hurt as formidable spy chief Control, Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr – the originator of the ‘mole’ intel, Mark Strong as the hardy Jim Prideaux, Colin Firth (fresh from Oscar success) as the educated and fashionable Bill Haydon, Toby Jones as the Scottish terrier that is Percy Alleline, Ciarán Hinds as rough diamond Roy Bland, Swedish actor David Dencik (next to be seen in Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) as the Hungarian surveillance master Toby Esterhase, Benedict Cumberbatch as the-closest-thing-to-Bond and Smiley’s protégé Peter Guillam, Kathy Burke as Connie Sachs, Roger Lloyd-Pack (aka Trigger from Only Fools & Horses) as old-school agent Mendel and Stephen Graham as Jerry Westerby. Indeed it is a quite a cast, with the crème de la crème of English players all delivering sterling performances.
The most intelligent, thoughtful and highbrow film of recent years, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a fascinating study of espionage, betrayal, the cold war and London politics (with that old chestnut ‘love’ thrown into the mix). This cold and harsh depiction of Le Carré’s greatest accomplishment is both thought-provoking and entertaining, and Alfredson manages the genius task of making the audience think about those offscreen as much as those on (Soviet spy boss Karla and Smiley’s estranged adulterous wife Ann are main characters despite their absence), showing that as the plot unravels, the audience also are starting to think like the spies they so emphatically observe.