Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy , the latest film from Swedish director Tomas Alfredson of Let the Right One In, is a carefully detailed slowly tightening trap of a tale, wreathed in cold-war gloom. I’ll recommend it if you like films which demand close attention, and if you have an interest in the machinations of government and an appreciation of fine British actors, then it’s a must-see.
My first surprise, being largely ignorant of the book or previous series, was that the story unfolds in 1973. That’s the year I graduated high school, when the world felt fresh and exciting. I’m often shocked at what the 70’s look like after nearly 40 years; there is not a whiff of ‘fresh’ and ‘exciting’ here, unless you count the pitch-perfect de-romanticization of the spy thriller.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guilliam
It’s a story that seethes with distrust, and so, much of the action is watching and being watched. Certainly not a thriller in the big box office way, the film is none-the-less riveting for it’s subtle and relentless unfolding. Gary Oldman is spell-bindingly inseperable from his character, George Smiley. He appears to do nothing. I’ve never seen so many talented poker-faces in one film. Mark Strong shape-shifts from agent to tourist to teacher. Firth is the charmer among his creepy colleagues played by Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones and David Dencik. Tom Hardy’s sexy dishevelment and Benedict Cumberbatch as the earnest Peter Guillam add a bit of refreshment.
I always love London the city-as-character, but this version is so grim as to be barely recognizable. Think of how distinct the city performs in Sweeney Todd, or Mary Poppins, or Love Actually. Well, here’s another one: here the city is both antique and coldly new, with slabs of ominous orange and gray office decor, creepy technology, and a hangover of victorian charm that might feel warm if not viewed through smudged windows or a sticky haze of cigarette smoke.
Framing of shots is intelligent and careful: so many scenes are viewed through layers, like windows that grid the world or constrict like portholes. Doors and entryways seem to tighten around you, heightening the sense of danger. Even the scenes on location in Budapest and Istanbul are carefully composed evoking the suffocating nature of the spy’s world. Thank god for Smiley’s new glasses; without them, it would have been difficult to keep track of flashbacks.
I’d love to hear from fans of the novels of LeCarré and 1979 series: how did this compare? Since the book and series were presenting a contemporary situation, how is it different to see it as history? Please share your thoughts!