Film Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Brit praises Thomas Alfredson’s new adaptation of the Le Carre classic…

A Saturday night visit to the ring-road multiplex is not, in the normal course of things, an activity of particular cultural sophistication. Grown-ups in JD sportsgear (i.e.oversized romper suits) toddle open-mouthed from the shouty, flashy blast of the foyer into the shouty, flashy blast of whatever lowest common denominator superhero brain-mush Hollywood has lately focus-grouped into being. The gargantuan cardboard tubs of fizzy pop and popcorn seem designed to dwarf the punters who clutch them into feeling eight years old again. And of course at eight years old you’ll uncomplainingly watch any sort of rubbish, won’t you?

Imagine my surprise then, when upon entering theatre 13 of the local Vue mega-cinema this weekend I found not only an old-fashioned trolley dolly, but one whose wares included… wait for it…. booze! I looked, and looked again. A series of passing men halted in comedy double-takes and peered with suspicion then growing wonder. Could it really be true? Yes, said the trolley person, Vue had gained a license that week to serve alcohol during films. Okay, the ‘bar’ consisted of a few bottles of Stella, WKD and some Aussie plonk, but, as with the talking dog, it’s not so much the content as the fact that they can do it at all that impresses.

So it’s fair to say that as I settled back in my seat and sipped my plonk I was predisposed to look kindly on the new adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Being a Le Carre fan (a Smiley fan really, not so much the more recent novels) I had had my doubts, partly because I worried that the constraints of a two-hour movie would squeeze the subtleties out of the thing, and partly because I already knew whodunit (in case you don’t, I won’t spoil it in this review). But in fact it is a quite brilliantly executed film.

Director Thomas Alfredson – a Swede – has an uncanny understanding of the novel’s dour Englishness. The evocation of 1970s London is wholly immersive: this is not so much the Cold War as the Cold Dank Drizzly War. Everything is brown, paisley, mildewed. “Do NOT Disconnect” is written in marker pen on the wallpaper next to a primitive computer. It’s all in the details. When the government man scrapes marge onto a triangle of Mother’s Pride toast and then crunches it, the very sound seems somehow to evoke a declining nation at its saddest, drabbest point.

 The casting is impeccable, particularly Gary Oldman as George Smiley. Tempting to suggest he channels Alec Guinness (star of the acclaimed 1979 TV adaptation) but in truth Le Carre’s character is so fully-formed and vivid on the page that it’s  truer to say that both men just play Smiley well. The trick is to underplay yet dominate. Oldman is so still throughout that when he raises his voice just a notch in anger, in one of the very final scenes, the effect is shocking. He also suits the glasses: black frames for the present, tortoiseshell for flashbacks – a clever device by Alfredson, who guides the viewer deftly through plot’s complexities.

On first viewing I thought the denouement – the exposure of the Soviet mole at the top of the British secret service – was a little hurried and anticlimactic. But on reflection I can see why Alfredson cut the film this way. In the novel (and indeed the TV version) you get to know each of the suspects – Alleline, Haydon, Esterhase , Bland – and as such there is a lot more riding on the final revelation. In a two-hour film there simply isn’t room to develop each of these characters so Alfredson wisely concentrates on making it Smiley’s story. Which isn’t to say he leaves too much out. Indeed, his treatment of the homosexual subplot, which results in the film’s final assassination, is much more successful than was the case in the longer TV adaptation, and is accomplished in minimal time via a few meaningful glances at a party – very skilled direction indeed.

A sophisticated film then, which attributes to the viewer a modicum of intelligence. Watch it at your local Vue with a glass of vin rouge and suddenly a trip to the multiplex seems like a reasonable leisure activity for an adult. You could almost be in France, were it not for the spotless lavs.

Dabbler Review is brought to you by Glengoyne single malt whisky – the Dabbler’s choice.
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About Author Profile: Brit

'Brit' is the blogging name of Andrew Nixon, a writer and publisher who lives in Bristol. He is the editor and co-founder of The Dabbler.

13 thoughts on “Film Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

    September 27, 2011 at 10:09

    Am looking forward to seeing this. A genuinely drab portrayal of the 70’s is always welcome. My local multiplex has a “mezzanine” area in the biggest screen. The “Mezz” has a bar and bigger leather chairs that recline (slightly). The height of luxury! The floor is still sticky of course.

    September 27, 2011 at 10:16

    We shall accept your usually impeccable analysis. However, the dottir’s weekend review is at odds. “Oldman was his usual brilliant self, the rest was tosh”. One mans meat is another woman’s Marmite. The hype had us rummaging in the DVD cellar for the original, this will be the fourth viewing since it’s inception.
    The TV series was, and is, a benchmark for what can be achieved through the combination of a peerless storyteller, a cast whose acting was invisible, the characters were all there was. The direction was a masterclass, slow, paced, constant tension, the sense of an amateurish organization pitted against an evil enemy sat constantly on the shoulder. The art director knew his / her job the period is encapsulated as never before, or since. The subject was topical, then and now…betrayal. For me it is the finest piece of television that has ever been produced, probably for peanuts. One scene is sublime, George Smiley is interrogating Ricki, he realises that Ricki is lying, his face hardens, the understated malevolence, an iron fist in a velvet glove, this and Smiley’s interrogation of Karla are alone worth the cost of the DVD.

    September 27, 2011 at 10:32

    This is an excellent review of a decent fim. Brit really nails the difference between the Guinness TV series and the Oldman film and it’s not to do with the lead but with the supporting characters. In the TV series there is the space to give them much more depth which makes the experience all the more enjoyable and intriguing.

    The exploration of the supporting characters adds meaning to the final “reveal” when the mole is unmasked in the safe house. In the TV series I recall that Smiley is waiting in an upstairs room and the audience hears the mole speaking Russian to his soviet contact and I, for one, spent a few seconds trying to work out whose voice it was until it became clear that it was [xxxxxx]’s. It added much more tension to the denouement.

    The TV series swept most of the gay subplot firmly under the carpet in comparison with the film – which maybe was a sign of the times. However greater emphasis of this would have been added another facet to the issues of deception and secrecy which are core to the plot.

    Given the limitations of time, the film is an excellent one. See the film, then buy the DVD of the TV series. However you might want to read the book…

  4. Worm
    September 27, 2011 at 10:53

    never got round to any le carre, book or film – not sure why really as I know I’d like it! Unfortunately no cinema for me for the next couple of years due to impending baby, so shall await DVD release, with large bottle of decent wine.

    September 27, 2011 at 11:20

    Not sure Worm, how the impending arrival of your child will keep you out of the flicks – for two years? Even if you are planning to deliver the child yourself (?), you only need to put aside a couple of days, surely? It is more likely though, that you will get the professionals in – or go to see them. Therefore all you need to check on is the fuel level in the car, the number of a local cab-rank (in case the car doesn’t fire up) and, if you are staying home, the temperature of the water in the birthing pool. Your wife will do the rest.

      September 28, 2011 at 04:08

      I love the implication that during the delivery would be a good time to pop out to the cinema.

      We truly are not the men our father’s were.

  6. Worm
    September 27, 2011 at 12:33

    luckily we live next to the hospital so I’m planning on walking over there MM! (also means I can nip home to watch telly/ raid the fridge/ hide)

    September 27, 2011 at 13:21

    Actually Worm is right, in these days when (1) the grandparents (aka. free babysitters) live miles away and (2) dads are expected to share equally in parental duties, the cinema is the leisure activity that goes right out the window on the arrival of a sprog.

    This is cos you don’t want to waste your babysitting quota, which could be used in restaurants, on flicks that might be rubbish and which you’ll eventually be able to see on DVD anyway.

  8. Worm
    September 27, 2011 at 13:45

    yup, with no family to babysit nearby, a simple trip to see a potentially mediocre film at the local movieplex would cost approx £50 for the two of us 🙁

      September 27, 2011 at 14:41

      Worm, for a small consideration, say 1Xbottle 25 yr old Macallan plus 3Xbottles Gordons, per visit, Frau Malty and myself offer our services. Plus traveling expenses, of course.
      Frau Malty, you may observe has waived the mixers and lemons, in order to offer a competitive service, in these Euro strapped times.

      Think of the freedom, all of those movies, so little time.

    September 27, 2011 at 21:12

    I had doubted that the new film could ever live up to Alec Guinness, but it can. It keeps the darkness, and the languid pace. It’s frightening, though, how you realise that the Cold War is a historical period now, although one I lived through and recognise. The slowness of landlines, and files, and gradual betrayals. And a cameo by John Le Carre himself as the British spies sing the Soviet anthem at their Christmas do. Brilliant cast. Wonderful atmosphere. Made me want to be a location scout, even if they moved Smiley from Chelsea to Islington.

    September 27, 2011 at 21:23

    Worm old chap, i’ll happily babysit if you can pay my airfare etc. i haven’t yet been entrusted with childrearing and feel this is an experience lacking from my c.v. i am keen to raise your offspring in my image, to pass on my valuable life experiences and so on. Please consider me as a potential babysitter.

    September 27, 2011 at 22:49

    A child reared on the tenets of tweed, wittgenstein and milf. When can you start?

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