Directed By: Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy arrives under considerable weight of expectation, and justifiably so with such a cast. It is impossible not to compare director Tomas Alfredson’s movie to the masterful 1978 TV version starring Alec Guinness as softly spoken spy hunter George Smiley. Is Gary Oldman a more memorable Smiley? Possibly. Is this a better adaptation? No. Is the movie more entertaining? Resoundingly, yes.
However, entertaining does not necessarily mean more penetrable or fast moving. TTSS is a subtle film all over, particularly with costume. It is not 1970s dress up; suits are conservative, a Savile Row esque silhouette with occasionally broad lapels. Or are they over-layered with subtext, apart from an obvious tendency towards tailored blandness. After all, it is the role of these men to blend in.
This is a relatively faithful, period adaptation of John le Carré’s novel, yet thanks to Alfredson’s understanding of story and period, it still feels like a proper movie. Le Carré’s spy speak has been simplified and the narrative tightened with visual pay-offs supplementing dialogue. Protagonist characterisation, perhaps oddly, has been scaled back. As with Guinness, Oldman’s Smiley does not refer to a favourite tipple, music or otherwise obsession; his mind is on the task. He only speaks when he needs to and only raises his voice once. You won’t forget that moment.
Smiley’s only tangible trademark are his thick rimmed spectacles, of which Oldman, like Guinness, tried on dozens of pairs in order to find the character. Alec Guinness did have a hat; trilby, bowler or flat cap for travelling. However, Oldman is restrained, his Smiley seemingly even more astute and focused; he needs nothing.
Production design by Maria Djurkovic credibly portrays the seventies as all taupe and steel (deluge of cigarette smoke is missed however), while Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are just as effective for their subtlety. Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam, another intense portrayal by the young actor, is most representative of the period in terms of styling (cropped trenchcoat, nipped-in waist jacket, kick-flare trousers). David Dencik puts in a fine performance as ‘Circus’ member Toby Esterhase, only bow ties and one hideous shirt signifying his ‘untrustworthy’ dress sense.
If TTSS falls down anywhere it is with unevenly developed characters. Some are given too much time to breathe, some not enough; Hardy’s jittery ‘scalphunter’ Ricki Tarr and Ciarán Hinds’ outspoken ‘soldier’ Roy Bland respectively. Mark Strong as dependable field man Jim Prideaux achieves most; charismatic but damaged physically and emotionally. It is difficult to take your eyes off him, even opposite Gary Oldman.
With a dream cast who excel, plus an intricate story that plays out convincingly and with a satisfying conclusion, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is essential viewing; a classy, very British affair, despite the broad nationalities of its crew. If only you could take a cup of tea into the cinema.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is released in the UK on 16th September and (possibly) 18th November in the U.S.
© 2011 – 2012, Christopher Laverty.