Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Director: Tomas Alfredson / Screenplay: Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan (from novel by John le Carré) / Editing: Dino Jonsäter / DP: Hoyte van Hoytema / Score: Alberto Iglesias
Cast: Mark Strong / John Hurt / Gary Oldman / Toby Jones / David Dencik / Ciarán Hinds / Colin Firth / Kathy Burke / Benedict Cumberbatch / Stephen Graham / Simon McBurney / Tom Hardy / Roger Lloyd Pack
You have to assume they’re watching you…
First came John le Carré’s 1974 novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Loosely based on the author’s own experiences as a member of both MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service (‘SIS’ but better known as ‘MI6’), it featured a densely-woven plot, that focussed on the hunt for a suspected Soviet mole at the heart of SIS. Appearing at a time when the UK (and by extension, NATO) was teetering on the edge of conflict with the Warsaw Pact, the book resonated with a wide audience and was to cement its main character of George Smiley into popular culture; turned-out, that people were keen to learn what might be going on in the shadows.
With public interest in Smiley undimmed (and only bolstered by a succession of sequels featuring the character), it fell to the BBC to make a landmark, seven-part adaptation in 1979, starring Sir Alec Guinness. In subsequent years, this has come to be regarded as a masterclass in both screen adaptation and acting. How Guinness brought depth and pathos to a character, who’s often thought of as inscrutable to the point of blandness, is seen as a template for many.
Smiley is seen as the ‘ultimate’ spy because of his anonymity. Le Carré drew-on his own first-hand experience, to write the antithesis of Fleming’s Bond. Smiley’s not some glamorous international playboy, but lives a grounded existence, working hard for a Service whose integrity and sense of mission he believes in without question; furthermore, he carries an intellectual superiority over his opponents and believes he knows how they can be beaten. Without gadgets. Or fast cars…
Tinker’s adaptation into a film was to take a little longer, however. The prolific Peter Morgan was originally set to write an adaptation but had to drop-out, which left producers Working Title to hand-it on to husband & wife writing team Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan. With so much to say about the film, I shall begin with their contribution. While I’m familiar with Le Carré’s novel I haven’t read it, so can’t comment on what might have been omitted during the couple’s streamlining of the text. What I can say however, is just how elegant their efforts are, at bringing a large, complex spy-thriller to life. At no point did things feel rushed, squeezed or stretched. Although it came in at ‘just’ a hundred and twenty-seven minutes, I never felt short-changed or left pining for the (excellent) mini-series to flesh things out.
I can’t tell you just how hard it must’ve been to distil the book into that running time, but the result is a miracle of pacing, slow-burn revelation and all-round economy. Little wonder that the film was nominated for a ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’ Oscar and won a Bafta in the same category. The tragedy, is that Bridget O’Connor was to die of cancer during the film’s production, so never saw her work rewarded.
I should also talk about the Director, Tomas Alfredson. A Swedish national, his ‘breakout’ film prior to Tinker, had been the fantastic Let the Right One In (2008): a contemporary, thought-provoking vampire chiller that’s well-worth a look. For Alfredson then, coming to this project set in 1973 London and revolving around British Intelligence, the challenge must’ve been staggering, so it’s to his enormous credit, that it looks as good as it does. His direction is sure-footed and brisk, showing a confidence in the material as much as his own vision. He’s backed-up by superb work from his DP, Hoyte van Hoytema (who shot Right One, incidentally). Hoytema captures scenes with a gauzy, nicotine-stained tinge, evoking the dull browns and earth-tones of the period. When we do see bright colours – oranges in a grocer’s display, or a classic red phone-box – they stand out against the drab.
Credit’s also due to Editor Dino Jonsäter, who must’ve burned the midnight oil to make the film run as smoothly as it does. The transitions are so good here: take the scene where Smiley asks Guillam if he’s got the keys to Control’s flat. All we get is a snatch of dialogue as a voice-over, while we see a little incidental B-roll, before cutting to their arrival at the flat. What’s really impressive here, is what it leaves out: the obvious transitionary scene, that lesser directors and/or editors would’ve gone with. That’s just one small example; the film is littered with moments of economy such as this; little grace-notes, that reassure the viewer we’re in safe hands.
So let’s now consider the film itself. I’m not going to cover the plot in any great depth here, as to do so would take too long and run the risk of spoiling its revelations. In a nutshell however? Retired spy George Smiley is recruited by a senior member of the Cabinet Office to investigate rumours of a Soviet mole – a ‘double agent’ – who’s said to have been operating at a senior level in the Intelligence Service ‘for years’. He accepts the job, recruiting his own small team of trustworthy associates to help him join-the-dots…
It’s an indicator of how strongly the stars were aligning for Tinker, when one considers the stellar cast. Amidst an embarrassment of riches, the role of George Smiley fell to veteran British actor Gary Oldman. He inhabits the role completely, displaying none of the exuberant tics and flourishes for which he became known; quite the opposite, in-fact. Oldman builds a steadfast, resolute and honest broker in Smiley, in a performance that’s all about restraint and self-control. The one moment where he lets the mask slip, is when he confronts the traitor: blurting out an astonished rebuke of a question in a burst of controlled exasperation.
As Control, the Head of the Service, we have the incomparable John Hurt, who’s grouchy antagonism sets the tone for Smiley’s own house-cleaning. His turn at the spook’s Christmas party, is a smooth blend of intimidatory heckling and old-fashioned belligerence. An actor’s actor for all that, it’s easy to see how the cast might’ve been intimidated around him. He’ll long be remembered.
Another of note, is Colin Firth. For some reason, I haven’t seen many of his films, but he’s always struck me as an urbane, cultured actor with a rich hinterland of experience and interests, so watching him in this, as senior agent Bill Haydon, I was keen to see if he’d try something different. Alas, the part called for a suave gentleman with a rogue glint in the eye, so there was little scope for Firth to ‘free associate’. Still, he followed this part with another gentleman-spy in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014), so maybe he thought it was working for him. I can’t disagree.
Other parts are cast with players of equal strength. Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam does a good job with a slender part, as one of Smiley’s accomplices, as does Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr. Tinker caught both these actors as they began to ascend the ranks to international stardom and it’s refreshing to see Hardy, in particular, in a role laced with such emotional vulnerability.
Smaller parts are effortlessly filled with Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds and others, of which I’d like to single-out Roger Lloyd Pack as the ex-Special Branch copper Mendel to whom, it seems, nothing surprises. Kathy Burke, too, as Connie. An ex-analyst at ‘the Circus’ (le Carré’s euphemism for SIS’s fictional HQ), Connie was forced-out for questioning the importance of a figure spotted on the balcony of Moscow’s May Day Parade. It seems her extensive knowledge of ‘Kremlinology’ might compromise the as-yet unknown mole… Watching their scenes together, I was reminded of their previous collaboration, when Burke starred in Nil by Mouth (1997); a powerful domestic drama, written & directed by Oldman.
Of all the supporting players, though, it’s Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux who got my attention. A capable actor in everything I’ve seen him in, this role takes him beyond the Circus, first to Hungary, then a nondescript minor public school for boys, before a devastating, wordless finale. In these shifting locations, Strong imbues Prideaux with a sense of voluntary alienation, both from society and his colleagues; of having been groomed for this life from the very beginning. Whether revealing a calm dignity when meeting Smiley, or a surety under pressure when dealing with an unfortunate intruder into the classroom in which he’s teaching, Prideaux reveals more character than anyone else in the picture. When Alfredson plays his trump-card, alluding to a deeper emotional connection between Prideaux and the traitor, it’s handled superbly between both actors, yet it’s Strong, who emerges from that exchange with my sympathy; as if in that moment, he knows the truth before anyone else. It’s all in a single glance, yet it speaks volumes…
I should also mention the film’s production design. Blimey, it looks good! From Hoytema’s muted cinematography to the set-design, period costumes and details, e.g the look of a Wimpy bar, or décor of a low-rent hotel room, it evokes the period with consummate ease. Oh, and kudos too, to composer Alberto Iglesias, who delivered a score which echoes the work of Maestros such as Jerry Goldsmith and Dave Grusin, whose output were a staple of genre films of the period. The score’s final flourish, features a live recording by Julio Iglesias (no relation) singing the French standard La Mer; soundtracking a montage of scenes showing the denouement of Smiley’s investigation. Because it’s an audible counterpoint to what’s on-screen, it accentuates those images with bittersweet acuity. Credit to Alfredson and Jonsäter for choosing this ‘outro’ as well as Iglesias, for capping his evocative score with such a left-field choice.
If my review to this point, sounds like an uncritical pean to Tinker’s glories, it’s only because I’ve saved the niggles to the end. As you might expect, in an adaptation of such brevity, there’s precious little room to imbue any of the characters with meaningful emotions. While Smiley is being both cuckolded AND placed in a delicate position, the script never gives him room to breathe. In the immediate aftermath of his initial dismissal from the Service, we see him swimming in a local lake, getting his hair cut and walking the streets, but we instinctively know he’s ‘treading water’ until his recall…
About the only one to experience catharsis is Prideaux and that’s only thanks to his sniper-rifle and a piqued sense of having been betrayed. Any other inter-personal relationship is off-limits for these characters. Some reviewers commenting at the time of the film’s release, were disappointed at what they took to be ‘passionless’ or ‘thinly-drawn’ characters, but I think that’s missing the point: In an adaptation of this length, how could there be anything more?
On its merits, then, what we have here is a boiled-down, Cold-War thriller, that’s blessed with an illustrious source and cursed with an unwieldy cast that, somehow, has to be shrink-wrapped into a sleek multiplex-friendly running time. It can’t please everyone!
Which begs the question: why haven’t we seen a longer ‘Director’s Cut’? I would suggest that Alfredson gave us the definitive cut on-release. If we want to see more, there’s always the BBC version or the book, of course: the pictures in our heads, are always more dazzling than anything on the silver screen.
No, it’s not perfect as a movie, but it’s intelligent, presents its case at a measured pace and expects the audience to keep up. In other words, it’s the kind of spy film they just don’t make any more and, for that alone, it’s to be celebrated.
At the time of writing, it’s a shame to report then, that Alfredson’s only other feature since Tinker, was the disappointing adaptation of Jo Nesbo’s ‘Scandi-Noir’ thriller The Snowman. Despite another screenplay from Straughan and the involvement of many collaborators from Tinker, the film suffered through its rushed, patchy production and had to be salvaged in the editing.
One day you’re on top of the pile, the next you’re sliding. Nothing’s for certain in the movie business…
I had to pick a side, George. It was an aesthetic choice as much a moral one. The West has become so very ugly, don’t you think?