Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

4 1/2 stars

 

Director: Tomas Alfredson

Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Toby Jones

 

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For all the warring between the Bond and Bourne franchises, you'd be thinking that theirs are the only spy genres on the table. But there's a chillier, less frenzied option that's been out of favour for a generation, and is now being unexpectedly exhumed.

 

John Le Carre's brand of talky, exposition-heavy, espionage thriller could seem quaintly anachronistic in a world with Bourne on the big screen, and deluded Iraqi intelligence on the real screen. So it's a risky commercial move to dig up his most famous novel for long overdue, cinema duties.

 

It doesn't help that so much of Brand Le Carre has been scavanged for parody in the past 20 years. "He killed our man in Istanbul," says Benedict Cumberbatch's MI6 operative, with a toss of an eyebrow, like he's playing spies on a boys' weekend.

 

Tinker, Tailor is set in 1974 in a brazenly, pre-Stella Rimington, spook world. Men smoke and protect the realm, while women type or stay at home. Apart from Kathy Burke's spit and cough, women exist on the peripheries of Le Carre's world. While the issue of Smiley's cracked love life is important plot-wise, it's coyly dealt with. Mrs S is never fully shown or heard, as if letting a female in might break the spell of black-suited, male power.

 

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Oldman successfully dodges the ghost of Alec Guinness as George Smiley. Taciturn and scrutinous, Smiley remains beguilingly opaque, not exactly an untouched canvas, but one whose brush strokes are almost invisible to the eye. The character needs an actor like Gary Oldman, whose face tempts you with a more fiery inner life, to make Smiley come alive on screen.

 

Oldman is supported by a roll-call of top Brit talent, including John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy and Colin Firth. Cumberbatch probably makes the biggest impression outside of Oldman as Smiley's inside man. It's he who gives the film a human heartbeat, and it's through him we feel the fear and nerves that seem to elude the steady-handed George Smiley.

 

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Director Tomas Alfredson manoeuvres us through Le Carre's labyrinthine world with assuredness, painting 70s London from a palette of desaturated colours. This is the real anti-Bond, where the spy game is conducted in offices that look like Watford County Council, and the operatives look more like building society pen pushers.

 

There are still four other Smiley-heavy Le Carre books ready for adaptation. Who's up for Smiley's People next?

 

Steve O'Brien

 

Trailer. Below. Click.

 

 

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