Earlier this month I moaned about Cary Fukanaga’s new big-screen version of Jane Eyre. I said that while I liked to see directors making interesting decisions when choosing material to work with, I was disappointed with the result. Here we have another famous work of British literature, John Le Carré’s revered literary thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and another inspired choice of director, Thomas Alfredson (the Swedish filmmaker who brought us Let the Right One In). But, unlike Jane Eyre, this vision of a famous novel does work, just about; and Alfredson’s directorial stamp on the finished film is both flawed and fascinating to behold.
The plot is simple enough to describe, but complex to follow. George Smiley (Gary Oldman, perhaps in a career-defining performance), a retired spy for the secret service, is brought out of retirement to investigate the possibility of a mole “right at the very top of the circus”. His boss (a marvellous John Hurt), who is referred to only as Control, talks of his suspicions surrounding a Russian spy working within the British service. But before he can reveal his evidence for the accusation he dies, making way for George to step back out of the cold and into the limelight.
The book is very detailed and takes its time building up the story. The film is very detailed but doesn’t wait around. We are pulled quickly into Le Carré’s dark tale of deception and intrigue with barely any time to get to know who it is we are meant to be suspicious of. This is perhaps the most notable fault of the film. Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s screenplay is at times very bewildering, and jumps between scenes, time zones, plotlines and countries so quickly, confusion is never far away. The TV adaptation of the novel, which aired on the BBC in the 1970s, had multiple hours of time which could be devoted to character development and plot teasers. This has only two hours to play with, and sadly the story suffers because of it.
Oldman’s restrained, though calculated, performance is extraordinary to watch, and it’s quite likely we’ll be hearing his name read out at the announcement of the Oscar nominations early next year. The supporting cast is also marvellous: joining John Hurt are Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kathy Burke. There are of course more, but it was Hardy and Burke with whom I was most impressed. Hardy often gets cast as a brutish thug, but here he delivers the most intelligently pitched and sensitively handled performance of his career. Burke, who used to degrade herself as part of the tragically unfunny, but depressingly popular, comedy double-act Kevin & Perry (she was Perry to Harry Enfield’s Kevin), is a revelation. She has always been marvellous in her serious acting roles, but here she is especially memorable in her brief turn as a retired secret service bureaucrat.
The most disappointing thing about the film is its consistent refusal to let characters and situations breathe. Of course, this takes us back to the issues with the jumpy script and rushed plot, but for the real charm of Alfredson’s Let the Right One In was his eagerness to let settings and scenes speak for themselves. Here, everything happens so quickly the director’s greatest asset fails to fully materialise. But everything still looks achingly, bleakly beautiful, emphasising the cold, grim political climate of the time.
Although I didn’t feel the film was the thundering success some reviewers have claimed it to be, it is still an interesting and deeply intriguing experience to watch. And it takes more than one watching: this is the see-it-twice film of the year, though sadly not for the reasons I was hoping for.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), directed by Thomas Alfredson, is distributed by Studio Canal, certificate 15.