Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (15, 127 mins)
Director: Tomas Alfredson
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
John Le Carre’s 1974 espionage novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, set among the big players in the British Intelligence Service, met with great success when it was made into a 1979 television adaptation starring Alec Guinness.
Retaining the 70s setting, this big screen updating begins with Mark Strong’s spy sent to Budapest by John Hurt’s controller to meet the person who knows the identity of the double agent working for the Russians who holds a powerful position within British intelligence.
But he gets himself shot, and in flashback the blanks are filled in as George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is brought out of retirement to find, as Hurt says, the mole right at the top of the circus. He’s known to be one of several high ranking agents, among them Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds and Toby Jones, who have been designated Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and so on.
When this is good it can be very good, and it’s such an overwhelmingly strong group of actors that the attention is held even when events on screen are, shall we say, minimalist. And what’s best about it are the performances, none more so than Oldman, who for the first 15 minutes or so of the film, doesn’t say a word.
Everything is in his body language, his gestures and glances, and though when he does finally speak there’s a hint that he’s doing a Guinness impression, it’s certainly not a distraction from a riveting portrayal.
Subtlety is the key in everything here, but as a consequence it suffers as a thriller, lacking the flair and cinematic pizzazz that may have been expected from the director of Let the Right One In. It’s full of interesting conversations and enigmatic phrases, but so deliberately paced that patience can be tested, and as far removed from a typical spy caper as you can get.
It’s more of a museum piece than a thriller, a stuffy parade of dull, shabby little men in grey suits, dedicated to paperwork and one-upmanship, largely focussing on how empty and pathetic their lives have become. But as the layers of the puzzle are added, it does gain traction and grips steadily without ever coming close to actually providing any excitement.