I first came across Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy through Arthur Hopcraft’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s labyrinthine Cold War thriller in 1979 when the BBC aired the seven-part mini-series directed by John Irvin and starring the impeccable Alec Guinness as the weary, forcibly retired and emotionally detached spymaster George Smiley. At the time it was an unprecedented coup for the BBC to secure the services of such a huge star as Alec Guinness – television was still seen as the cinema’s poor relation back then – and his casting was probably the initial reason why so many viewers tuned in to watch it. But George Smiley was no James Bond – there were no gadgets, no fast cars, no exotic locations, no beautiful women and no action. Instead, this was a world of jaded, disillusioned spies who inhabited dreary offices in a dreary building, where corruption, betrayal and arbitrary dismissal infested its beige corridors.
Alec Guinness may have been the primary reason why viewers tuned in, but it was the story – George Smiley’s secret hunt for a mole (double agent) at the very heart of ‘the Circus’ (the codename for the British secret service) – that kept them watching week after week. It was about the flow of information that leads Smiley inexorably towards his quarry – the viewer only found out something when Smiley found out, and such was Le Carré’s brilliantly devilish plotting (and Arthur Hopcraft’s elegant adaptation) that – even with only four suspects – there was no way on earth the viewer would be able to discover who the mole was until it was revealed in the final episode. But the hunt for the mole was not the only subject of this superb production – it also dealt with misguided loyalty, loneliness and the devastating and destructive effect on the lives of those who were involved in the dirty business of spying on others when events spiralled out of control.
Boasting a terrific supporting cast – including Bernard Hepton, Hywel Bennett, Sian Phillips, Patrick Stewart, Beryl Reid and the marvellous Ian Richardson (who was so memorable as the devious Sir Francis Urquhart in the BBCs House of Cards a few years later) – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was nominated for several Emmy Awards and BAFTAs. Tony Pierce-Roberts won for his atmospheric camerawork and Alec Guinness won Best Actor.
Alec Guinness had been a stalwart of British films for years appearing in such classics as Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers, Our Man in Havana, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia to name but a few. He was actually too old for the part of Smiley – he was much younger in the book – but such was his commanding performance that when reading the subsequent sequels– The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People – in what is now known as the Karla Trilogy, I found it nigh on impossible to separate Guinness from Smiley. He created an indelible impression and Smiley is perhaps now his most fondly remembered role (along with Obi-Wan Kenobi, of course), and so when it was announced that a film version of the book was being made I naturally thought that no one would be able to follow in his footsteps. They were big shoes to fill and any actor who was brave enough to tackle the role would have the spectre of Alec Guinness hanging over him throughout the production.
Fortunately the man who took on the role was Gary Oldman, an actor of consummate skill who can bury himself into any role and make it believable. He is one of the best British actors of his generation and you only have to watch him in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula or Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy to see how his mere presence dominates the screen. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy can now be added to the list of films where he absolutely nailed the character he was playing.
Flawlessly directed by Tomas Alfredson, who gave us the excellent Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In in 2008 (remade surprisingly well by Matt Reeves two years later for the American market as Let Me In, presumably because Hollywood seems to think that its audiences are incapable of watching images and reading words at the same time), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a moody, atmospheric slow-burner of spy film. It is definitely not for lovers of high-octane thrillers that feature guns, car chases, rapid cutting and CGI enhanced action sequences that defy the laws of physics. Like its highly revered seven-hour predecessor, this intricately structured adaptation by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan is intelligent, grown-up drama that demands your complete and undivided attention. There’s no nipping out for a crafty fag or having a quick snog with your loved one on the couch during this one – miss just a few seconds of it and you’ll end up confused, disoriented and totally lost.
The cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema is exquisite, perfectly capturing the smoke-filled, sepia-toned world of the 1970s. Van Hoytema also provided the startling cinematography for Christopher Nolan’s outstanding science-fiction epic Interstellar. And if that wasn’t enough, Alfredson assembled a dream cast of British acting talent – alongside Gary Oldman there’s Colin Firth, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, Kathy Burke, Benedict Cumberbatch, Simon McBurney, Roger Lloyd-Pack, Mark Strong and Tom Hardy as well as Swedish actor David Dencik.
The critics loved this film and for once I agreed with them, but many people with short attention spans and who had been brought up on high-budget films that were low on plot and character development in which fight scenes or explosions or gunplay occurred every two minutes felt that the trailer had misled them into thinking it was an action thriller and complained that it was boring, confusing and that nothing happened in it. Well, let me tell you, this film is not boring or confusing and there is always something happening in it. All you have to do is pay attention.
I’ve seen this film many times now and with each subsequent viewing it gets better and better because I pick up subtleties in the screenplay that I had missed on previous screenings. There’s a scene early on where Smiley is in the back seat of a car being driven to a meeting with the Undersecretary of State. There’s a fly in the car. The driver and front seat passenger are wildly flailing their arms as it buzzes around them, but when it flies into the back of the car Smiley quietly and calmly winds the window down and lets it out. The scene lasts for maybe twenty seconds but it tells you, without a single word of exposition being spoken, everything you need to know about how Smiley’s logical brain works – he’s a man who thinks things through before acting and he misses nothing
The supporting cast are uniformly excellent, especially Benedict Cumberbatch as Smiley’s right hand man, Peter Guillam, Tom Hardy as the betrayed spy Ricky Tarr, Toby Jones as the odious Percy Allaline and Roger Lloyd-Pack (in his final film performance) in the small but effective role as the ex-Special Branch man Mendel.
But this is Gary Oldman’s film all the way and he’s every bit as good as Alec Guinness was and – dare I say it – I think this film is better than the TV series. I know that may sound like blasphemy to some but, hey, get over it.