Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Running time 127 minutes
Gary Oldman as George Smiley
Colin Firth as Bill Haydon
Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr
Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux
Ciarán Hinds as Roy Bland
Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam
David Dencik as Toby Esterhase
Stephen Graham as Jerry Westerby
Simon McBurney as Oliver Lacon
Toby Jones as Percy Alleline
John Hurt as Control
Svetlana Khodchenkova as Irina
Kathy Burke as Connie Sachs
Roger Lloyd-Pack as Mendel
Christian McKay as Mackelvore
Konstantin Khabenskiy as Polyakov
This one of those rare films which should be an hour longer rather than an hour shorter. Why? Because the subject matter of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier ….Spy is so intricate that without considerable scene setting and back stories, which were absent in the film, I doubt whether anyone would be able to readily follow the plot let alone get full value from the film if they were not familiar with the Smiley novels , whether that be from the books, previous films, television adaptations or the recent excellent BBC Radio 4 production of all the eight books in which Smiley appears either as a central character or on the periphery of the tale.
No one new to the stories would have understood Smiley’s relationship with his adulterous and glamorous wife Lady Ann or his intense psychological bond withKarla, the Soviet spymaster . No one new to Smiley would have a clue from the film what position Peter Guillam held (in charge of the unit which did the dirty work including assassinations, blackmail and robbery known as scalphunters) or been aware that Bill Hayden is supposed to be a talented painter who perhaps secretly wishes he had made painting rather than espionage his life. No one new to Smiley’s world would understand the moral struggles he has within himself as the Soviet enemy becomes ever less sharply focused and British power and influence ebbs away.
The confusion caused by the lack of scene setting and back story telling is added to by the large ensemble cast and the frequent switches of characters and locations.
The plot is briefly this. The head of the Circus (MI6) Control suspects there is a Soviet mole in a high position within the Circus (MI6). He sends Jim Prideaux on an unauthorised mission to Czechoslovakia to meet a Soviet General who claims he knows the mole’s name. Prideaux is betrayed and shot, although not killed and returns to England where he is secretly put out to grass teaching in a private school.
This highly embarrassing failure results in Control being forced into retirement along with his right-hand man Smiley. However, the suspicion about a mole is re-ignited when a Circus agent Rikki Tarr discovers during a love affair with a Moscow agent evidence that there is indeed a highly placed mole in the Circus, but before she tells him who it is, the Soviet agent is kidnapped and taken back to the Soviet Bloc where she is killed.
Oliver Lacon, the senior civil servant responsible for the Intelligence Services, becomes aware of this new evidence and brings Smiley surreptitiously back into service to investigate whether there is a Russian mole in the upper reaches of the Circus. Tarr works for Peter Guillam and he is brought into the picture as Smiley’s aide. Control’s successor Alleline and his deputies Bill Haydon, Roy Bland, and Toby Esterhase are the prime suspects and have the code names Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Poor man. They have no knowledge of what Smiley et are up to. The film consists of Smiley, with the help of Guillam and a retired special branch officer Mendel, tracking down the traitor.
Oldman is a good but not great Smiley. Alec Guinness (in the TV series) and Simon Russell Beale (in the Radio 4 plays) were better. That is partly due to the rushed and cramped nature of the film which did not allow the character of Smiley to develop and expand as TV and Radio could and did (the TV version of Tinker was spread over seven episodes; the most recent Radio adaptation over 3 hours) ) , not least because Smiley’s sufferings over and longings for his wife Ann are barely touched upon (she had an affair with Bill Hayden); partly because the camera too often focuses overlong on a poker faced Oldman to convey Smiley’s generally undemonstrative and private nature and partly because Oldman representation of Smiley is not quite posh enough. The last is a subtle thing but telling. Oldman’s Smiley seemed to be concentrating just a little too hard on his RP accent, like a man speaking a foreign language in which he has made himself so fluent that he almost but not quite passes for a native. Nonetheless, Oldman comes into his own as the film progresses and he becomes ever more actively involved with the search for the mole. Then you see the publicly withdrawn, self –contained personality suddenly swept up in the thrill of the chase and from that energy become incisive and decisive to the point of cruelty.
Firth as Hayden is unreservedly good. The part is made for him with his fading matinee idol looks, acerbic tongue and vast charm . Unlike Oldman he merely seemed to be playing himself. Toby Jones as the ultra ous but limited Scotsman Percy Alleline fitted the bill exactly, as did Kathy Burke as Connie Sachs, the terminally nostalgic, dipsomaniac ex-Circus researcher with the incredible memory. John Hurt as Control simply plays himself.
David Dencik as the ex-patriot Hungarian Toby Esterhase is decent enough, but he did not quite capture the character’s desperate and never to be satisfied desire to be unreservedly accepted as one of the MI6 club. The recent Radio adaptation gave Esterhase one of those bogus posh English accents which fails from being a little too precise, a little too dated in its vocabulary and phrasing and with the slightest remnants of a foreign accent. That admirably conveyed both Esterhase’s valiant attempt to gain an unqualified acceptance within the Circus and his failure to achieve that end. Dencik’s Esterhase was simply a nervous uncertain foreigner, his biggest fear being that he would be sent back to (Communist) Hungary.
Of the other characters Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr is not quite cockney enough, Jim Prideaux not posh enough; Mendel has much too little screen time; Roy Bland is utterly peripheral to the story as it unfolds and Lacon has just the right superior and supercilious manner.
In all respects but one, this is wonderfully politically incorrect film. Set in 1970s Britain there is not a single black, brown or yellow face to be seen and, apart from the Scotsman Alleline and the Hungarian Esterhase, the major characters are all English, most of them drawn from the upper-reaches of English society . To add to the horror for white liberals, women are peripheral and subordinate to the men and everyone smokes like chimneys.
The only consolation for the politically correct is the turning of the heterosexual Peter Guillam into a homosexual. This not only adds nothing to the plot, but positively diminishes the character. Guillam is a heavy, a public school educated heavy, but a heavy nonetheless. He acts as Smiley’s minder and dishes out the rough stuff on Smiley’s behalf when someone needs to be made a little more cooperative. Being gay and a heavy is not I would suggest an obvious combination in the eyes of the public. To the mistaken and utterly gratuitous change of sexual inclination, is added the performance of Cumberbatch as Guillam in which he projects all the physical menace of a wet sponge whilst sporting the most ridiculous haircut seen in the cinema since Javier Bardem in No country for old men.
This is not a bad film; rather, it is a film which could have been much better and most importantly, vastly more comprehensible to those unfamiliar with the Smiley novels. It was perhaps an impossible task to fit such a complex novel which not only has an intricate plot but relies very heavily on character depiction into two hours. But for all its flaws it is much superior production to the vast majority of the traffic which hits film screens. If you are English it also has the inestimable plus of being England as it used to be. Go and see it even if you cannot fully understand the plot.