UK – StudioCanal/Working Title (UK release 16 September 2011)
Non-aficionados of John le Carré’s series of spy novels might need a cryptographer present to decipher this adaptation’s plot. It’s 1973, and Karla has placed a mole at the top of the Circus – which is to say, a Soviet double agent has infiltrated the leadership of the British Secret Intelligence Service. George Smiley (Gary Oldman), the former right-hand man of disgraced intelligence chief Control (John Hurt), has been tasked with finding the ‘bad apple’ within the uppermost circle.
This is a film about shades of grey in every sense of the phrase: its murky colour palette reflecting a shabby world of moral compromise. At one point, Smiley remembers telling one Soviet opposite number: ‘we both spend our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another’s systems.’ It’s an aptly procedural way of describing the unglamorous business of Cold War spying: a non-conflict marked by a quotidian grind of small advances and counter-advances. That world and that culture are recreated masterfully in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Visually, from costumes to set design, the film is rich in detail, but in many ways it is a Spartan affair. As much information as possible is conveyed with a minimum of fuss, with important scenes often hinging on meaningful silent glances. It’s entirely appropriate, as it’s difficult to imagine le Carré’s taciturn characters over-indulging in expositional dialogue.
Key to the success of this approach are the solid performances of the assembled cast: a Who’s Who of British actors. Oldman in particular invests Smiley with a quiet mix of determination and fatigue – just the right tone to hold at the heart of such an unromantic film. Hurt, as a gravelly Control – whose real name is never known – ably depicts a character invariably on his own and quite happy to be so. Toby Jones and Colin Firth are predictably strong in their respective roles as suspected double agents, joined by a suitably weaselly David Dencik. Benedict Cumberbatch is effective as Peter Guillam – a civil servant pushed outside his comfort zone – and Tom Hardy sounds the film’s only truly passionate notes as the conflicted Ricki Tarr. Also worthy of praise are a sombre Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux, and Simon McBurney as an oleaginous Oliver Lacon.
The storyline is deceptively simple – with a minimum of convoluted twists and turns – but this is an unashamedly cerebral film from Let the Right One In director Tomas Alfredson: the casual cinemagoer will need to pay close attention. Intricate details tick by like seconds on a carriage clock, but for a work that (almost fetishistically) revels in precision it hangs a little loose in places. The way it has been edited renders several moments unnecessarily confusing and difficult to follow: a fault of the filmmakers rather than the source novel. These are glitches in an otherwise taut construction. Also, a tip: don’t pay too close attention to the trailer if you don’t want a key element of the story spoiled.
This is a suspenseful and engrossing adaptation, with some excellent, controlled performances. The ending, when it comes, is an anti-climax, but that’s not necessarily a reason for criticism. With such an inscrutable subject matter how could it have been anything else?