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  • Post last modified:August 23, 2020

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Return of the Ringmaster


I prefer my spies dapper. I want to see them sip martinis and seduce women in one breath, and in the next kill enemy agents in cold blood. I want to see nifty little toys, fast cars and insane supervillains hiding in lairs that could only be designed by Ken Adam. But there’s a more melancholy side to me that connects with the depressing world of John le Carré‘s spies. Where Ian Fleming preferred to turn his experiences from the intelligence community into escapist entertainment, le Carré was more interested in the rainy reality.

A botched mission in Hungary
British intelligence is in a bad place. After a botched mission in Hungary that resulted in the capture of one of their agents, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), two of the greatest talents at the “Circus”, veteran agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) and the organization’s chief, Control (John Hurt), were forced to retire. The top leadership now consists of Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) and three deputies, Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). Alleline reached his position because of his ability to deliver high-quality intelligence about the Soviet Union. The government has complete faith in it, but Control was skeptical. Shortly after being forced out, he died.

When a younger agent, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), tells a civil servant in charge of intelligence that he knows of a Soviet mole within the leadership of the Circus, Smiley is secretly hired to investigate. The veteran realizes that Control had reached a startling conclusion – the mole has to be Alleline, Haydon, Bland, Esterhase… or Smiley himself.

Cold vision of the era
The story was previously filmed as a much-admired miniseries in 1979, and Oldman’s take on Smiley was reportedly inspired by both Alec Guinness’s performance, and le Carré himself. The TV version was shot a time when the Cold War had entered a more routine but still devastatingly chilly phase – and it affects this movie, 30 years later. Director Tomas Alfredson reunited with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema to recreate what they had done for their breakthrough picture, Let the Right One In (2008) – a cold vision of the era, with desaturated colors, where the smallest of period details matter in every shot.

Alfredson shies away from anything that might look like James Bond, but the Circus headquarters still tickle one’s imagination, with conference rooms that come off as a cross between a padded cell and a bomb shelter. All in stylishly bleak brown, orange, gray or military green, naturally. Screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan compressed a complex story into a two-hour script that is frankly brilliant. Flashbacks shine a light on the intrigues that brought the Circus to the current depressing state, but the politics of it take second place to the emotions. There is a particularly touching scene where Smiley meets a former colleague who tells him how she misses the war, a time when “Englishmen could be proud”.

This sadness permeates the whole film. There are many moments of tension as well, all skillfully staged, but the filmmakers wisely make a point out of le Carré‘s realistic approach. The exposure of the mole never comes as much of a surprise, but rather a logical conclusion; the final scenes are not exciting showdowns, but heartbreaking and down-to-earth – all set, brilliantly bizarrely, to Julio Iglesias’s live version of “La mer”.

Watching Gary Oldman in such an impressive role is sadly rare these days, but he’s the standout in a uniformly excellent cast. His Smiley was once humiliated by tinkers and tailors but now he’s forcefully taking control of the Circus. Still, you wouldn’t notice him if he passed you in the street.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 2011-Britain-France-Germany. 128 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Robyn Slovo. Directed by Tomas Alfredson. Screenplay: Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan. Novel: John le Carré. Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytema. Music: Alberto Iglesias. Production Design: Maria Djurkovic. Cast: Gary Oldman (George Smiley), Benedict Cumberbatch (Peter Guillam), Colin Firth (Bill Haydon), Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones… Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, David Dencik.

Trivia: Co-executive produced by le Carré (who also has a cameo) and Peter Morgan (who wrote the first draft of the script). Michael Fassbender was reportedly considered for a role. Co-writer O’Connor passed away shortly before the premiere of the film.

BAFTA: Best British Film, Adapted Screenplay. European Film Awards: Best Composer, Production Designer.

Last word: “It was not the intention to make it as difficult as possible to understand, no. The piece of the charm of this genre and John le Carré‘s work is that it is complicated and almost like you get paranoid yourself — you yourself become an investigator, with the material. I think our struggle was to make as much images as possible out of the actions referred to in the flashbacks and the present story. It’s very inspiring to hear how different people have seen the film. I think it’s fantastic to hear what people actually see in it.” (Alfredson, Film School Rejects)



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