Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: both a brain-teaser and a no-brainer

‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ (2011) by Tomas Alfredson, whose critically acclaimed Swedish-language first feature “Let the Right On In” indicated great skills in the horror department, marks the great return of the Cold War spy movie.

As a gentle starter, for those like me who weren’t brought up in a British nursery, the film title originates from a well-known children’s rhyme: “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief.” which is used in John Le Carré’s story to attribute MI6 agents codenames. The novel, which had already been turned into a miniseries for television in the 1970s, is cleverly adapted by Alfredson, who does a great job setting up what is a complex plot and creating an engrossing and realistic atmosphere. However, its overall slow pace,  Poireau-esque 1970s colour shades, rather unglamourous situations, Inspector Derrick-looking characters and non-existent action scenes mean ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ is as far away from James Bond and the Bourne Trilogy as spy films go. Yet the stratified intricacy of the investigation and the depth of each character’s portrayal makes the movie totally gripping from start to finish. What’s great too is that unlike James Bond movies where the preposterous plots never make much sense and are an excuse for more naked ladies, gadgets and shootouts, here the viewer is actually encouraged to try and unravel the mystery, and there is no disappointing ex-machina twist at the end so you can go home satisfied with the results of your inquiry.

Gary Oldman, who is probably the most versatile actor around, embodies sulky-face ex-MI6 agent Smiley who is taken out of retirement (as they all are) in order to investigate an allegation that there is a mole among the British Intelligence barons. Those form the “Circus”, headed up by Percy Alleline (large forehead Toby Jones). Smiley quickly understands his assignment is connected to a mission botched a year earlier, where Control (immortal John Hurt), head of the Circus at the time, had sent agent Jim Prideaux (beau Mark Strong) to Budapest to unravel the same mystery, only to get shot by Soviet intelligence.

Thus starts a rather long-winded but fascinating London-centred inquest which will involve ex-members of the Circus – including clerk Jerry Westerby (Stephen Graham from ‘This is England’) and agent Ricki Tarr (sturdy Tom Hardy) – and current members: Circus deputy head Billy Haydon (ever-classy Colin Firth), collaborators Roy Bland (Ciarán Hindsand) and Toby Esterhase (Swedish David Dencik), or unofficial aid Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch in a very subtle gay role). The mole’s boss on the Soviet side is identified as Karla, a mysterious enemy Smiley had met in the past. Who is providing him with British intelligence? And what’s this Witchcraft file the Circus leaders are hiding so scrupulously from the others?

Tomas Alfredson’s prowess is two-fold. First his screenplay has been skillfully polished to make for a pleasant, involving viewing in spite of the complexity of the plot. Second, he had picked the perfect pack of actors to bring substance to a story stripped of the usual crowd-pleasing special effects which focuses on intense human relationships. Any anxious look, any false move, any uncontrolled tear could lead to the traitor – so you’d better make sure you keep away from anyone’s radar.

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