Tinker Tailor, Soldier Spy

Art & Culture

Expecting to love a film, and actually loving it, are 2 different things. My expectations going into TTSS were high. At the end of it, I found that I liked it, but not as much as I had expected to.

I agree that having expectations, particularly when they’re great, is a bad idea, but you try managing without them. So I shall just have to try to explain how I feel the film falls short of greatness.

The time is 1973, the setting the British Intelligence Services. The Circus (as it is known in Le Carre’s novel) is a ship without a rudder. A job in Budapest has gone badly wrong; an agent has been killed. Control aka the boss ( John Hurt) has been moved on, along with his ally George Smiley (Gary Oldman). But now he is being asked to investigate the possibility that one of the four men in charge is a mole, a traitor working for the Russians and planted there many years earlier. Smiley has to do his work out of the limelight, and is assisted by Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) as well as the testimony of former, disaffected agents like Rikki Tarr (Tom Hardy). An added complication is that one of the men under suspicion, Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) has been having an affair with Smiley’s wife.

As many of you will know, the book was adapted for television in the 1970s, with a cast led by Alec Guinness as Smiley. The series ran for over 5hours as it took its time to let the story unfold at a leisurely pace, with a climax at the end of each episode. The film lasts just over 2 hours and has to pack all its punches without a break. And yes, I know that comparisons are odious, as are expectations, but they are equally inevitable. So one question is why Tomas Alfredson (who made the fabulous Let The Right One In) should want to adapt the book in the first place. True, it is also set in the 70s, in a gloomy half light where people feed off each other (metaphorically, at least). And it does offer opportunities for tension and disquiet, especially for audiences not familiar with the original. And in the case of Gary Oldman, it offers the chance of a leading role to an actor who promised so much at the beginning of his career, but has recently been seen propping up the Batman franchise.

So, in my analysis of why I am unable to fall in line with the universal chorus of praise for Tinker, Tailor, I shall start with Oldman. According to Wikipedia, George Smiley was born in 1906 though Le Carre later rearranged his chronology so that his birth date was 1915. In other words, in 1973, he was either 67, or 58. Oldman is 52, while Guinness was 65 when he played Smiley on TV. Not a huge difference, perhaps, but what is crucial is that Guinness was an actor who naturally hid inside himself, emitting very little dramatic wattage. He could disappear into the scenery without effort. You could imagine him as a cuckolded man. Oldman is far more virile and full frontal, and therefore, although every effort has been made for him to look older, and to diminish his youthfulness, I was always aware of that effort, and never fully believed in him as Smiley. He seems to much the alpha male, even when viewed in a half light. Oldman works hard, muting his voice to a murmur (and to my ears, seeming to try to imitate Guinness’s fruity tones), but it is that very effort that undermined his credibility.

As for the story, it is one which requires either the extended running time of the TV series, or a previous knowledge of the book. A new viewer, left to their own devices, is going to wonder who half the people are, what relationship they have to each other, and what their motivation is. There is simply too much material to be crammed into 120 minutes. As well as the main story, we have Jim Prideaux in a caravan at a prep school befriending an overweight boy, Rikki Tarr’s love affair with a Russian woman, Smiley’s previous encounter with his arch enemy, Karla and so on. To his credit, Alfredson performs heroics of compression, darting back and forth and managing to juggle several balls in the air at the same time, without ever letting them drop. But it is a juggling act, not a smooth and untroubled progress from A to Z.

Just to be clear. I was impressed with the film, its casting, and its direction. And it’s impossible to say how I would have reacted if I had come to it fresh, but I didn’t, and therefore I can only judge it as I found it, which is as a well made, skilfully acted and directed spy thriller, some way short of the masterpiece which other critics have claimed it as. I never really suspended my disbelief.


Phil Raby

Front Row Films

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