Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (15) *****

Gary Oldman as George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Photo: Jack English
Gary Oldman as George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Photo: Jack English
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Witness the return of the considered, intelligent thriller. Since it is an adaptation of a considered, intelligent novel by that old warhorse John le Carré, we should not be too surprised that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is bordering on that over-used phrase, a masterpiece.

It isn’t actually a masterpiece. Instead it is a solid ensemble drama with a formidable, 24-carat cast of British thesps – including Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch – working from a deliciously complex script and with direction by Tomas Alfredson.

Alfredson is a brave filmmaker. He introduces two central characters and almost immediately kills them off. He also has the confidence to flash back through time and events to lay out the threads of the plot. Those threads are multifarious and frayed. It falls to Oldman, as all-seeing veteran agent George Smiley, to draw them together.

The kernel of Le Carré’s novel is the hunt for a mole within the highest echelons of British espionage during the Cold War of the 1970s. Information is being fed into the UK via a Russian source. The various departments are at one another’s throats. An agent sent to seek out information is compromised. The mission goes bloodily awry. Smiley is one of those who pay with their jobs. But he is invited back to clean up the mess. To do so he recruits his own team and skirts around colleagues who may – or may not – be trusted. Like all the best spy stories Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a tale of trust, lies, death and deceit. It hints at the undeclared internecine warfare that is waged between these most secret of civil servants and the extraordinary levels of paranoia that exist from the ground up.

Oldman brings a clinical ruthlessness to the solitary Smiley in what is a studied portrait in grey. This is a remarkable performance, unlike anything Oldman – so fond of barnstorming – has ever delivered in the past. It has nuance, guile and, always, the notion of cogs whirring away quietly. It may be the best thing he has ever done.

There is an icy bleakness to le Carré’s world which Alfredson has caught magnificently. It is a world beyond our own – the world of shops and pop music and gardening and kids playing. This is a world of sleight of hand. And Smiley is a master at that game.

All the miscellany of the spy is present in this movie. Purists will argue that it is still not the film of the book but still it manages to condense Smiley et al into a tight and wholly plausible thriller.

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