In recent years we have not been short of spies; Bond, Bourne, TV’s Burn Notice and even Chuck. One theme common to all of these, action. Whether it’s a car chase, a fist fight or a shoot-out, most ‘spies’ these days are less secret agent, more agent of destruction. In the midst of all this adrenaline and gun-fire sits Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, conspicuous, not only by its stark lack of the aforementioned traits, but also by its deliberate and understated quality.
Directed by Swede, Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) and with an all-star cast led by Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight, Harry Potter etc. etc.), Colin Firth (The King’s Speech, Bridget Jones etc. etc.) and a veritable who’s who of British acting talent. Tinker, Tailor is a journey into the old-school of Cold War espionage, quiet phone calls, discrete meetings intercepting coded messages and passing secrets. No car chases, no kung-fu, no blowing up everything in site and only a handful of shots fired. It is also successfully transports us back to ’70s London in its full mundane drabness. It is a taupe flannel world filled with ugly brown cars and dreary, questionable home decorating.
At the centre of this London is the Secret Intelligence Service (commonly referenced as MI6). At the centre of the SIS is The Circus and at the centre of The Circus, so we are led to believe by its head, Control (John Hurt), is a Soviet mole. So sure is he that the mole is real that he authorises an off-the-books liaison with an informant in Hungary. A meet that goes wrong and results in the agent (Mark Strong) being shot and Control’s removal from The Circus and the SIS. With Control, senior Circus member George Smiley (Oldman) is forced into retirement and the rest of The Circus are left to continue running Operation Witchcraft, a covert operation centred around a mysterious informant, supplying Soviet intelligence.
After a phone call from rogue agent Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy, Inception), a government minister, both involved and suspicious of Operation Witchcraft, brings Smiley back out of retirement to re-initiate Control’s mole hunt. We then follow Smiley as he deftly weaves his way though the web of secrets and deceit, ably assisted by a handful of inside and outside men. The web is intricately spun and we are kept guessing to very last with plenty of surprises and twists along the way*. Every suspect, namely the members of The Circus, including Smiley, are open to scrutiny and suspicion right up to the final discovery and arrest of the mole. (*provided you haven’t read the book or seen the 1979 BBC mini-series).
Much of the twistiness and plot weaving is likely due, in no small part, to Le Carre’s writing but credit must be given to Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan who have done a fantastic job of condensing the book into a shade over two hours. The performances of all the cast are extremely well played, many suitably understated. And with such bright and starry cast, no one, even Oldman, steals a scene, nobody overshadows their cast-mates, everyone fits into their role and the performances and performers compliment each other perfectly. And then there is the look and feel of this film. I have already nodded at the art direction but the cinematography and editing combine to make this film, already entertaining to the mind, a pleasure for the eyes as well.
A wonderfully written, directed, performed and shot film that satisfies on all levels. A must see and easily my stand out of 2011.
Still in theaters in the US and released in the UK on DVD January 30th 2012.