Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – review

The new adaptation of John le Carré's novel is a brilliant study of the disenchantment, compromise and tension of the 1970s spy game

Director Tomas Alfredson came to prominence with Let the Right One In, a story about vampires, but his instinctive, even passionate sympathy for the undead was never better displayed than here. This is a skin-crawlingly atmospheric, uncompromisingly cerebral and austere account of John le Carré's cold war espionage novel, adapted for the screen by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O'Connor. Gary Oldman plays the melancholy agent George Smiley, brought out of his humiliating retirement and charged with rooting out a Soviet mole in the upper reaches of the secret service.

Could it be Alleline (Toby Jones), Haydon (Colin Firth), Bland (Ciarán Hinds), Estherhase (David Dencik) – or someone else? Like Michael Corleone contemplating Fredo's duplicity, Smiley's face is a mask of icy determination. He is also suppressing emotional agony. One of these men has betrayed him personally.

When the BBC television adaptation with Alec Guinness was on the air in 1979, this was contemporary drama. Now it's a 70s period piece. Distance lends yet more disenchantment to the view. We are miles away from Bond glamour: defeating the clearly defined bad guy, getting the girl, and so on. This is an arena of shabby compromises enacted by anxious middle-aged men who feel, to quote Kathy Burke's research agent Connie Sachs, "seriously under-fucked". It is a tatty, nasty, shabby and stiflingly male world of beige and grey, seen through a dreary particulate haze – fag-ash and dandruff. The interiors and government offices are lit with a pallid, headachey glow. Every room looks like a morgue, and the corpses are walking around, filling out chits, wearing ill-fitting suits, having whispered conversations, giving and receiving bollockings and worrying about loyalty.

The movie brilliantly conjures up the heavy weather of Le Carré's spy game: it involves nothing like derring-do, but a ritual of humiliation and a ballet of shame in which the security services play their part in managing decline and managing denial, and the Brit spooks try to rebuild their reputation with the Americans – the only people with secrets worth keeping – in their calamitous post-Philby world. Alfredson shows how the profession of secrets meshes with sexual shame, heterosexual and homosexual: perhaps because married womanisers and in-the-closet gay men are good at pretence and doublethink, and perhaps because they yearn for a world which makes a virtue of deceit. In his visit to Moscow this week, David Cameron regaled his hosts with an ingenuous anecdote about being approached as a fresh-faced teenager during a Russian trip in his 1985 gap year. Two men encountered him on a beach, then took him to lunch, then dinner, and flatteringly asked him about politics. Cameron laughingly says it was a "KGB interview". Well, yes. But were they to collaborate on a film version, Le Carré and Alfredson might give us a clearer hint about the subtexts to this predatory encounter.

The somnambulist gloom of Tinker, Tailor is animated by two chillingly realised setpieces: in one, an agent named Prideaux (Mark Strong) is summoned by the spy-chief Control, played by John Hurt, and ordered to go to Budapest where he is to bring in a Hungarian general who wants to come over to the west and reveal the mole's identity. His initial meeting with a third party at a far-from-innocuous cafe takes place in circumstances crackling with unease, an almost Truman Show theatre of paranoia. A droplet of sweat from the waiter's brow lands on the table, like the first sign of a thunderstorm. The meeting ends in calamity, and is to trigger the forced resignation of Control and Smiley, an unjust humiliation they accept like the good chaps they are.

The second setpiece takes place in Turkey, and involves the young hothead Ricki Tarr, played by Tom Hardy, the nearest thing this drama has to a Bond figure. Tarr is an other-ranks figure in his blue denim shirt, not a member of the Smiley officer class, spying on a louche military attache. Alfredson creates a tremendous Rear Window tableau of sex and violence in the distant lighted windows of grim apartment buildings. Romantically, in the middle of this bloodbath, Tarr is to fall in love with this man's beautiful wife Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova), who is in a position to give him far more important intelligence than the man he is following. At a crucial stage in the proceedings, Tarr promises to help Smiley, but makes him give a vital promise in return, and the consequent betrayal colours the drama with yet more dishonesty and bad faith.

This Tinker Tailor is a weightless, slo-mo nightmare taking place in what looks like an aquarium filled with poison gas instead of water: I found it more gripping and involving than any crash-bang action picture, and it is anchored by Gary Oldman's tragic mandarin, a variation on Alec Guinness which transfers the emphasis away from George Smiley's wounded feelings to his cool capacity for unconcern in the face of violence, a hint of a daredevil past, long mummified by bureaucratic self-control and a schoolmasterly scorn for his victim's weakness and disloyalty, while seeing how easily any agent could give the wretched Judas kiss. What a treat this film is, and what an unexpected thrill.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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