Based on John le Carré’s classic novel, the film is a glorious failure of an adaptation that manages to fit in a lot in its two-hour running time but sacrifices key details and, as a result, a lot of power.
London, 1973, MI6 is in turmoil as its head, Control (John Hurt), is forced to resign after a botched operation to uncover a Soviet mole in the Circus, MI6’s headquarters in London. Also forced into retirement is Smiley (Gary Oldman) as a change in command begins to pursue a new vein of intelligence named “Witchcraft” which Control and Smiley felt too good to be true but the new men running the Circus, lead by Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) and Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) find priceless in buying American cooperation. Smiley is called back into action when Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy), an agent thought to have gone over to the Soviets contacts a government minister confirming Control’s suspicions that there is a double agent at the top of The Circus. With the help of Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley investigates his former colleagues and the events surrounding the operation.
Having the benefit of recently reading the novel I was able to see the changes made to the story. The decision to foreground certain themes like homosexuality and decline were clever and placing the botched operation at the start ensured excitement from the get-go but in compressing a story full of character studies the missed details proved essential to the overall feeling the film generated. Essentially by removing a lot of the back-stories of various characters and their Oxbridge backgrounds it took out some of the texture present in the novel, the motivations of the characters and my interest in them waned as the story felt flaccid, the betrayals lacking punch and I was not as gripped by the film as I was by the book.
That is my biggest complaint and it almost sank the film for me. Thankfully everything else is perfect.
As in his previous feature, Let the Right One In, Tomas Alfredson shows his skill at world-building and captures the atmosphere of 1970’s Britain (it looks like TV shows of the time). In terms of the mise-en-scene it feels of a different time and place where Britain is in decline as a world power. The atmosphere is one of disenchantment and decay with a colour scheme that includes faded blues, iridescent greys, strong browns and oranges. Rooms are smoke-filled and dark, exteriors are cold, the sunlight drained of warmth.
In this atmosphere are a set of men dedicated to the art of spy-craft, their duplicity is their job and curse creating potential threats in Smiley’s hunt. One of the first lines in the film is “Trust no one, Jim” and the film constantly reinforces the atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust as every glance is loaded with threat.
The film is excellently cast with everybody fitting their roles and bringing them to life, even improving on the book in some cases. In a brilliant low-key performance Oldman steals the film as Smiley. Although physically different from the novel, tall and lean and coming across as harder, he retains his quiet and observant nature.
“You’re a good watcher.”
“Us loners always are.”
His weapons are his patience, intelligence and carefulness, exactly who you want amidst a climate of mistrust. Equally good is Tom Hardy as Ricky Tarr, a scornful agent who feels more believable and sympathetic than the novel’s colonial chancer.
The female characters are also given a lot more dignity than they get in the book with Kathy Burke’s Connie less of a pathetic alcoholic wreck and more a woman living in memories. John Hurt almost steals the show as the irascible and jowly Control, a relic from World War II. All of the actors brilliantly flesh-out their characters but without the back-stories and focus on them the events and their impact on people lost a lot of meaning.
The film features a fantastic cast and brilliantly works up an atmosphere and story about malaise, distrust and doubt in a declining power and keeps different plot points spinning with a wonderful central performance. It’s just a shame that the denouement lacked power.
Tinker Tailor Solider Spy UK/Fra
Release date: September 2011
Running time: 127 mins.
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kathy Burke, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, David Dencik, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Christian McKay