Being a spy clearly isn’t as much fun as movies would have you believe. For every martini that Bond knocks back, for every night he’s spent seducing a supermodel, there’s 10,000 miles of paperwork, days of waiting in the cold and hours upon hours of endlessly tedious meetings.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a dense political thriller which probably comes closer than ever before to the reality of spy-dom; a world ruled by bureaucracy and civil double-dealing.
Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, a retired British Intelligence officer who’s lured back into the business by Control (John Hurt) to uncover the identity of the Russian mole who has infiltrated the highest ranks of MI6. But which of his colleagues is it? Could it be the smooth-talking supercilious Bill Haydon (Colin Firth)? The sour-faced Percy Alleline (Toby Jones)? The twitchy Toby Esterhase (David Dencik)? Or perhaps the blunt Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds)?
Director Thomas Alfredson has crafted this film with great care and precision. There’s a detached austerity to every scene which recalls his stunning 2010 effort Let The Right One In but punctuated by moments of nail-gnawing suspense. Together with his regular cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, each shot is beautifully and perfectly framed.
This allows the meticulous set design to shine through. There’s a impressive dedication to the 70s period – the characters eating in a Wimpy, graffiti proclaiming “The future is female”, posters reminding workers that “telephone talk is not secure”, the shiny rotary Bakelite telephones, the serpentine curling of smoke from smouldering cigarettes. What Mad Men was to advertising, TTSS is to spy thrillers – slow, and confident enough to create an atmosphere that you can soak in.
The all-star cast reads like a who’s who of British talent, all of whom are on top form. Oldman in particular gives a brilliantly restrained and subtle performance, one which hints at a much deeper history than we’re ever given privy too. Here’s a man who looks tired but is always watching, always vigilant and with a lizard’s unblinking patience.
Colin Firth slots perfectly into the role as Bill Haydon – effortlessly urbane and charming – and the other supporting suspect moles all deliver faultless performances.
But it’s Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy, the younger talent on the bill, who should also be singled out for high praise. Cumberbatch is magnificent in the film’s best scene – an excruciatingly taut set piece in which he must smuggle files out from MI6 in plain sight, his even blue gaze a hair’s breadth away from cracking. Hardy turns in an almost film-stealing performance as Ricki Tarr – a wet-work operative whose unorthodox affair with a Russian agent’s wife uncovers the existence of the mole in the first place.
To bring John le Carré’s labyrinthine novel to the big screen in just over two hours is no easy task and admirably screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan have eschewed narrative shortcuts and expositionary dialogue. That, however is a mixed blessing. While TTSS is constantly intriguing and immediately immerses the viewer in its world, it’s often hard to keep track of its characters who are referred to by both their first and last names but with no indication how they match up with each other. Everyone loves a puzzle but working out which character is which shouldn’t be one of them.
After a little mental adjustment that’s no longer a problem but it leaves the conclusion, which should by all rights be a startling and heartfelt denouement a little hollow. By this point, you’ll have caught up with the dense narrative but it won’t have moved you. Yes it’s beautifully constructed and brilliantly acted but it’s like watching something through a sheet of glass. You might be intrigued, even amazed by what you see, but it’ll never touch you.