Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (15)

By Jonathan Romney

As a film, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a good read. What, after all, is John le Carré's novel about, if not reading? Early on in Tomas Alfredson's new adaptation, espionage veteran George Smiley pops into the optician to exchange his specs for a new pair – big, square, heavy-rimmed, instantly familiar as the sort worn by Alec Guinness in the revered 1979 TV adaptation. The scene plays sly homage to the actor who made the role his own – as Gary Oldman now makes it his own – but it also reminds us what kind of spy Smiley is. He's a reader, an analyst, and he needs those glasses because his job is to scrutinise the barely visible fine print between the blurry lines.

That's what Alfredson's film invites us to do: it offers ample pleasures, not least distinctive visuals and a feast of classy acting, but don't expect to get the best out of it unless you stay alert and bring your reading skills to the table.

Is the film difficult? It's not easy, and it doesn't intend to be. But part of the pleasure of Tinker Tailor is the anxious thrill of getting lost in its winding corridors. Like the novel, the film defies easy summing up. George Smiley (Oldman) is retired from British intelligence service "the Circus" – MI6 to you and me – but he's been recalled by the government to root out a mole, a double agent who's spilling Circus secrets to Russia. But Smiley and his lieutenant Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) must do their job secretly, spying on the Circus itself. They must find their man by stealing files, winkling out semi-confessions, analysing a mountain of documents, dossiers and memos – which Smiley prefers to do by retiring to his personal reading room in a drab hotel.

Tinker Tailor is dense, deep stuff, and a mark of its subtlety is that the deceptively mild-mannered Smiley doesn't utter a word until 20 minutes in. One of the joys of the film is that Oldman, after years playing supporting heavies, has a real role to grapple with, and one of enticing complexity. His Smiley is inscrutably cerebral, seemingly committed to a cause that he can see right through; aware that his calling obliges him to betray the friends who are probably betraying him; and engaged, at long distance, with his own shadowy Moriarty figure in the KGB. Oldman conveys all this with impeccable reserve, while implying in his character a barely supportable weight of pain and tainted knowledge. His weary but ever correct delivery suggests tact, punctiliousness, the patience of a birdwatcher stalking a rare, possibly mythical species. He also reveals an unsuspected ferocity, even cruelty – watch him coolly terrorising a suspect on an airfield.

The performances are superb throughout, the actors obliged – because of the story's fast-shifting complexity – to convey a lot in a few deft strokes. Among them are Cumberbatch's nervous, eager Guillam, a suavely arrogant Colin Firth, Tom Hardy bullish as field operative Ricki Tarr, Toby Jones's dapper terrier of a Circus grandee, and John Hurt, magnificently cracking up as cantankerous, burnt-out spymaster "Control".

The script is a brilliant feat of condensation and restructuring: writers Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O'Connor realise the novel is overtly about information and its flow, and reshape its daunting complexity to highlight that. Audaciously, the film doesn't smooth over Le Carré's discontinuities, but gives us a string of self-enclosed anecdotes that we must collate for ourselves: Guillam's nerve-racking raid on a filing room, a brilliantly conceived Circus office party at which the star turn is a Lenin-faced Santa, and Tarr's ill-fated liaison with a Russian woman in Istanbul (the only moment at which the film resembles an action-laden spy thriller, because Tarr, narrating events, is writing himself a conventional Bond role).

Alfredson, the Swede who made the glacial vampire story Let the Right One In, is an unlikely but inspired choice of director, and visually re-imagines Le Carré's world from the ground up. Cameraman Hoyte van Hoytema and designer Maria Djurkovic create an ominous atmosphere, more grey than noir, not parodying the styles of the decade but suggesting that 1970s London wasn't that different in mood or look from 1950s Prague.

As for the Circus, its dusty London office is recast as a vast, impersonal space, something between a small parts factory and an antiquated British film studio. Its meeting rooms are mounted in soundproofed industrial containers, in which neatly buttoned officials huddle at the table like Oxbridge dons: you expect them to pass port anti-clockwise as they conspire. You're reminded of the closed universe of the Stasi, as depicted in the German film The Lives of Others: despite the "us and them" myths of the Cold War, Le Carré's fiction reveals how utterly alike the two sides are.

The film makes you realise, too, the danger and perniciousness of Smiley's world. There is more overt violence here than in the novel – a slaughtered corpse in a bath, passers-by as collateral. We realise, for all the urbane protocol and tweedy formality, that we're looking at a dirty business that suits a dirty world order. Nearly 40 years on from the novel, the fading into memory of the Iron Curtain adds the bitter edge of futility to these characters' desperate, obsessive endeavours.

Editor Dino Jonsäter manages the intricacy superbly, making you feel you've entered a dark, enclosed labyrinth. A key image is a shot of railway points shifting and connecting – a metaphor for Smiley's mental processes, and for the ever-mobile complexity of the narrative. You'll feel your own synapses working at full tilt as you watch this intelligent, bracing, consummately achieved entertainment.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor