There have been any number of film and television adaptations of John Le Carre's celebrated work but, until very recently, I had never read one of his novels. Before watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy I finished The Looking Glass War - a dry, intelligent and involved work with no happy ending. An ending, in fact, that I could see coming from the beginning but that was no less effective in its bathos.
Le Carre's spies are as far away from the globe-laying, gadget carrying, running, shooting, jumping Bond archetypes as it is possible to get. These are far more believable, flawed, human characters, with the upper echelons peopled entirely with Old Boys - no women or lower class people here thankyouverymuch These are spies that deal with intelligence, counter-intelligence, misinformation, disinformation and the blurred lines between them all. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy concerns the hunt for a Russian mole who has penetrated the inner circle of the Secret Intelligence Service, the Circus. George Smiley - recently forced out of the SIS along with John Hurt's Control after a botched attempt to flush the mole - is tasked by the Minister to hunt out the mole amongst them. Smiley is a spy, spying on the spies in an attempt to find the spy among them.
The film unravels at a perfectly measured and mesmerising pace. Not being packed with action scenes and shaking cameras, director Tomas Alfredson instead allows the characters to do all of the talking and heavy-lifting. It is a spy film filled with a lot of people sitting around talking. And it is absolutely riveting; I barely moved for the entire run-time, so absorbed was I.
It surely doesn't hurt any when there is a cast as accomplished as this. Gary Oldman, headlining as George Smiley, is a magnetic presence able to hold the attention of the camera with but a look. He speaks only when necessary and keeps everything beneath the surface. At first glance, Smiley is a buttoned down man; a typical English stuffed-shirt. But Oldman lets us see the fire and iron lying just behind the eyes when needed.
Tom Hardy as field-operative Ricki Tarr is the closest Tinker Tailor comes to the traditionally thought of cinematic spy. He's one of the men the Circus sends out into the field, to spy on foreign targets and eliminate or turn them as required. Ciarin Hinds, Toby Jones, Colin Firth and David Dencik are the men running the Circus, one of whom is the turncoat. Toby Jones' Percy Alleline is a weasel of man, with Hinds' Roy Bland seeming to serve as his right-hand man. Firth is the smooth talker of the office, easily hopping from office-girl to office-girl, the only man in the office exuding any sense of charm or charisma. And Benedict Cumberbatch is Peter Guilliam, the only man inside the Circus that Tarr and Smiley trust and who often finds himself in the lion's den.
Alfredson doesn't talk down to the audience, instead trusting them to keep up with the oft-confusing details as he sets the steady, steady pace and cold-soaked atmosphere. Tinker Tailor is a very English spy story, in a very English setting (with some influence from real events) and captured with an outsider's eye. The film, like the characters, can be cold and grey but there lurks a tension beneath it all. Come the end, mole or not, almost everyone is hurt or destroyed in some way. No-one comes out clean; no-one comes away happy or victorious.