Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is hallowed ground both in John le Carre’s book and the Alec Guiness starring television show form, so it’s no great surprise that not a single British director went for this new adaptation, instead leaving it to Swedish auteur Thomas Alfredson (probably best known as the man behind masterful vampire thriller Let The Right One In). The result is a grey, bleak world, inhabited by perpetually, and despite having a Scandanavian at the helm, very British, dour men, and nothing short of a masterpiece.
Part of what makes TTSS so brilliant is that it is entirely unlike any other espionage thriller. This is not explosive gunfights, men punching each other in the face for 10 minutes without effect or imminent nuclear terrorism. It is extremely intelligent cinema, the case of the mole in the Circus investigated by old guard George Smiley (Gary Oldman) using words instead of brute force. In fact, the mystery is barely vital to the security of the country, more a slanging match between the home security services of Britain and Russia, and it says much about the quality of the beautifully written script (managing to clue the viewer in, but never shoehorns the exposition) that something so trivial in the big picture remains utterly gripping.
Of course, a fantastic screenplay would be nothing without a cast to implement it and here Tinker Tailor checks another requirement of the Great Cinema List with gusto, although the supporting cast, despite some brilliant performances and absolutely no duds, does pale in comparison to the awe-inspiring quality of Gary Oldman. It is almost impossible to believe that the man behind Sid Vicious and Dracula is the hunched, weathered and grey man you see on the screen, conveying more with simple gestures and body ticks than most lesser actors could hope to with reams of dialogue, a particular standout scene being when Smiley recollects his one meeting with Karla, his Soviet counterpart.
If it was not for Oldman’s momentous turn, the cinematography would walk away as the crowning achievement of this movie, creating one of, if not the, most absorbing worlds in film of the past year, every city seemingly bustling with life, almost tangible beyond the screen and every location meticulously created, leading to a sense that these places existed long before we see them, and will continue long after we leave our chairs. The camerawork is at once clear and dizzying, showing us the world as Smiley sees it and the subdued nature leads to the rare moments of graphic violence being genuinely startling.
Overall, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy can congratulate itself on being arguably the best film of the last 12 months, with a great script and utterly faultless cast, director and crew. In being the one of the least action-packed spy films ever made, it also lays down the gauntlet of quality to which all others of its genre should aspire.
Director: Thomas Alfredson
Writers: Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan
Stars: Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth
Run Time: 127 minutes