***originally written 26 September 2011***
Tomas Alfredson directed Let The Right One In. That was my entry point to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Not it’s none-more-British setting, nor the none-more-British line-up of elite acting talent. No. I was attracted by the prospect of following the further development of the Swedish director’s career following one of the finest films of the last decade in any genre. Push comes to shove, the prospect of spending two hours watching a deeply serious film about espionage had me yawning before I even sat down. These sorts of things almost always come across, to me, far too earnest. If you’re going to have spies, government agents, double-crosses and decrypted files at least have the presence of mind to dressed it up ludicrously ala James Bond or 24. Don’t get me wrong; I champion intelligent, thought-provoking cinema. But spies? I have a tough time with spies.
Which probably explains why my previous exposure to Tinker Tailor is so limited. I have not seen the much-lauded 1979 serialisation, neither have I read John le Carré’s much-lauded novel from which the story is based. All I had to go on was a dreary-looking trailer, and a sombre-looking poster, even if it was smattered with enthusiastic praise from more professional film critics. No, Tomas Alfredson was what I was here for. To see how his quiet, meticulous style would work within an English-speaking storyline.
Appropriately it’s safe to say he’s not gone Hollywood. Not yet. The dingy streets of 70s London seem far more befitting of Alfredson’s sensibilities. And his keen eye for framing architecture does for our nation’s capital what it previously did for snow-covered Swedish suburbs. He has a canny ability to imbue his locations with distinct personalities. No doubt Alfredson was drawn to the story for just this reason. We won’t be seeing his addition to the Fast And Furious franchise any time soon.
In fact, aside from a brilliantly suspenseful opening sequence in Hungary, Tinker Tailor does its utmost to avoid action or thrills of any kind. In fact, for a significant portion of the first hour it seems to eschew traditional storytelling methods completely, instead preferring to drift, 21 Grams-style in and out of chronology (often inexplicably), and showcasing these shadowy MI5 agents in the mezzanine portions of their lives; getting to the office, leaving again, crossing the city. It’s a transient section of the film and, to be honest, an almost cripplingly dull one. I like slow movies, but this genuinely tested my patience. So concerned is Alfredson with not sensationalising his story, that he has created something so soporific as to prompt sleep.
Thank heavens then for Tom Hardy’s appearance as missing agent Ricky Tarr, whose tale of woe and betrayal suddenly pulls the disparate strands into focus, lending T.T.S.S. the drive it had been so desperately lacking. From here on, the film ticks along with a slow but steady propulsion as the search for the mole inside the ‘circus’ becomes the all-consuming plotline. Heading this investigation is George Smiley played by Gary Oldman, and much has been made of his reserved, studious performance. Like the movie as a whole, Oldman is respectably restrained, but almost too much so. He is thin as paper. Likewise, a majority of the prime suspects – the story’s title reflecting their code-names – are given little or no shading whatsoever. Ciarán Hinds in particular appears largely to be here purely for the general sense of gravitas that he carries around in that gigantic frown of his.
And whilst there are moments where Alfredson ratchets up the tension (a good sequence in which Benedict Cumberbatch has to sneak some information out of files and records, absolutely anything that features the sublime Mark Strong), he seems ultimately content to let Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy cruise on the merits of it’s own legacy and sophistication. Even the ultimate revelation, the reveal at the end of this whodunit, is delivered without fireworks. Though the simplicity and tension in the set-up is not inconsiderable.
Nevertheless, you just want a bit more. A bit of something. Who were these people with their troubled, bland lives? In the end, what did it matter? Did any of it matter? Lose a double agent, another turns up in his place. Smiley’s life is purposefully kept in the background – his wife, even his nemesis – never seen. These are sad, dislocated existences. Suddenly the aimless first half hour makes sense. Mezzanines are all these people are.
It’s beautifully shot by Alfredson, but it disappears like smoke.