Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Review

Worth seeing: as a convincing, but necessarily complex adaptation of Le Carré's classic spy thriller, for which you'll need to keep on your toes to keep up
Director:Tomas Alfredson
Featuring:Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, Ciarán Hinds, Mark Strong, Simon McBurney
Length:127 minutes
Released:16th September 2011


In 1970s London, with the Cold War raging, Control (John Hurt) is running the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.

He suspects that someone at the top of the service – among the most senior officers, known as the Circus – is leaking secrets to the Soviets.

Off the books, to keep the mole out of the picture, Control sends a second-rung officer, Prideaux (Mark Strong), behind the iron curtain to meet a double agent who can expose the traitor, but the mission goes tragically wrong, resulting in Control being removed from his position. His number two, Smiley (Gary Oldman) is forced to leave with him.

When Control dies in mysterious circumstances, Whitehall mandarin Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), approaches Smiley and asks him to expose the mole to restore the integrity of the Circus.

Smiley recruits the upcoming spy Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) to be his eyes inside the service on the most delicate mission imaginable – trying to get one up on a double-agent so devious and treacherous that he can make his way right to the top of his enemy’s intelligence operation and do it untold damage, without anyone even suspecting it’s him.


They say the best films come from short stories rather than novels, which is why such exponents of the form as Stephen King and Philip K Dick have had so many of their ideas brought to the big screen. So a novel pushing four hundred pages was always going to be a tough ask.

The first time John le Carré’s cold war classic was adapted for the screen was for a TV mini-series which extended to seven episodes and for many, including le Carré himself, the series worked so well and Sir Alec Guinness was such a perfect Smiley that the idea of recasting for a two hour feature film was almost beyond consideration.

But le Carré says that one meeting with Gary Oldman convinced him it was possible but he remained protective of the project throughout.

With award-winning actors including Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, the undoubtedly up-and-coming, if not already arrived Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy and the ubiquitous Mark Strong, the producers certainly give themselves a fighting chance and signing up an outsider to direct – Sweden’s Tomas Alfredson, fresh from the success of his understated vampire masterpiece Let The Right One In – was another inspired move.

But pulling it off, in truth, is a task greater than that required of Smiley himself.

There will be viewers already familiar with the original TV adaptation, the novel itself or le Carré’s other work, who will come at this complicated tale from an advantageous position, already knowing who makes up the Circus, their past allegiances and so on. But for those approaching this material from a standing start, there’s an awful lot to take in.

Some commentators have suggested that the film is slow to get going, but there’s so much information to squeeze in, if the plot unfolded any more quickly, many of the vital details would simply be lost.

As it is, Alfredson cleverly overlaps scenes in such a way as to release extra information, by having the dialogue from one persisting over visual clues displayed at the start of the next.

But one of the problems for those coming fresh to Smiley’s world is that in truth, there aren’t really any clues. It’s not the kind of film where viewers can collect information that will enable them to form their own theory about who the mole might be. A few minutes will pass, painting an effective picture of the period and place before a new character is introduced, bringing with him – or her – more pointers for Smiley and Guillam to pick up on.

So rather than drip-feeding the viewer with information, clues arrive in waves along with each new character, in a way that makes it harder for us to play along in the more traditional sense of a mystery movie.

We rather have to take the plot on trust and we’re always a step behind the protagonists. Perhaps this is le Carré’s intention – we viewers aren’t as bright and insightful as the great spymaster of his world or indeed as the author and former spy himself, but this doesn’t make for the satisfying traditional cinema-experience of prediction, revelation and satisfaction.

The twists and turns generated by the complexity of the plot render any advance thought futile and we’re left to enjoy following the characters around the shadows as their secretive world washes over us.

Smiley is doing this or that, so I guess he must have a good reason – ah – I see. And suddenly, we understand what we’ve just seen a little better and can guess at what might happen in the next chunk of the film – but nothing really points to the identity of the mole until le Carré is ready to expose him, the result of which is that when we find out who the mole is, we don’t get the rewarding pat-on-the-back that other such revelations might provide.

Of course there are effective red herrings and when the plot does start to unwind, it’s never unconvincing.

But anyone new to the intelligence world wouldn’t really get much of a sense of what the Secret Intelligence Service does. In many senses, it seems that the sole raison d’être of MI6 is to find enemy spies, but if MI6 didn’t exist in the first place, there’d be nowhere for enemy spies to reside in the first place. In an oddly self-important, self-referential and circular way, MI6 seems to exist for no other reason than to stop spies infiltrating itself.

This highly accomplished spy thriller is admirable in its narrative complexity and cinematic professionalism, from the pitch-perfect performances, evocative production design and portrayal of intelligence procedures such as the gentlemanly way deadly enemies do business – at the top of the tree, at least. Further down, the rivals are as brutal and ruthless as antagonists you’d see in more conventional spy films.

But as impressive a piece of film-making as it is, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy offers an oddly passive watching experience. We don’t learn too much about the wider world of espionage and fans of the genre who enjoy a more interactive evening out might not find themselves taking as rewarding a journey as they might expect.