Fantastic 5 star review by Kate Muir in The Times:
John Le Carré’s world of espionage and betrayal is brought to brilliant life by Swedish director Tomas Alfredson
Here is a spy thriller seen through a smear of brown Windsor soup, rather than through the crosshairs of a gun-sight. As John le Carré’s novel takes to the big screen, the action is more cerebral than physical, yet utterly gripping. The clues are in the twitch of an eyebrow, a sly glance across a room, a bead of sweat falling. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is better described as a puzzler than a thriller, a spy Su Doku where clubbable men discover they have joined the wrong club.
And what splendid gentlemen they are, straight from the theatrical top drawer: Gary Oldman as George Smiley, Colin Firth as Bill Haydon, John Hurt as Control, Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillem, Tom Hardy as Ricky Tarr, Toby Jones as Percy Alleline, Cierán Hinds as Roy Bland and Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux. For fans of the book, such casting will be sheer delight, although I experienced an initial who’s who moment of panic as the seemingly identical M16 men-in-suits trooped out. If only they’d been issued with corporate name tags …
The story is set in 1973 as the Cold War heats up in the crummy corridors of M16, known as “the Circus”. Our taciturn but telepathically intelligent hero Smiley has been cast out into the civilian wilderness, retired by the new regime, which has also putsched Control. An operation to “turn” a Hungarian general has twisted, and the British agent Prideaux is shot. Information is flowing the wrong way, towards Moscow and into the hands of Smiley’s nemesis, Karla. Smiley and Guillem suspect there is a mole right at the top of the British secret service, and begin their dogged pursuit.
So far so good. But how do you compress a dense 349 page book into a two-hour multiplex extravaganza? Especially with Alec Guinness’s television Smiley blocking the spotlight? You call in the Swedes, specifically Tomas Alfredson, who last directed the Oscar-nominated vampire movie Let the Right One In. Alfredson has an understanding of creatures that operate in darkness and secrecy, and his eye for period detail borders on the obsessive.
Perhaps it takes an outsider to see into the hearts and minds of repressed, polite Englishmen, and Alfredson brings that Scandinavian slow divination to the mix. For the offices of the British secret service are riddled with men’s fear and loathing, their rankings and ranklings inculcated in clubs and common rooms. But where once the stakes were low and grudges petty, now lives and nations depend on them. Those who went to the wrong school, or God forbid, the wrong tailor, are still taking quiet revenge.
The subtleties of tailoring turn out to be a useful guide to character: badly-cut brown suits are questionable, while Smiley’s buttoned-up grey three pieces show a man of integrity, who even wears a tie after swimming in Hampstead ponds. Haydon’s suede Hush Puppies with red socks and Guillem’s flash silky ties are a sign of closet flamboyance. Alfredson’s scriptwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan have brought the homosexual subtext to the fore, reflecting the real history of espionage.
Oldman’s Smiley is so still and watchful, you can hear his brain click. In his beige Gannex raincoat, he paces round the action with the calm of a cat, his senses attuned to every danger. When he pounces, it’s not before sucking contemplatively on a Trebor Extra Strong Mint. Smiley’s imaginary conversation with his enemy Karla is a revelation: “We’re not so different, you and I.” Smiley’s famous glasses are an aide memoire for the audience: in flashbacks they are tortoiseshell, in the present day, Seventies’ grey bins.
No detail of the design has been missed by Alfredson, and the film is worth watching for the cinematography alone. One scene takes place in a Wimpy bar, and outside the streets are packed with classic cars from Morris Minors to Prideaux’s baby blue Alvis and a golden 1966 Citroën DS 21. The interiors of the Circus are saturated institutional brown and green, and Control holds his secret meetings in a giant Spam can, a Portakabin soundproofed with yellowing foam.
The locker-room claustrophobia is aided by a lack of women. Only two female characters have more than a line, and Smiley’s errant wife, Ann, is almost invisible, seen from behind. This is a man’s world and Alfredson jokingly acknowledges that with a shot of graffiti towards the end which says “The Future is Female!”, anticipating the coming regimes of Stella Rimington and Eliza Manningham- Buller.
That said, this is not just a man’s film. There’s enough delicate characterisation to enthral, though the plot requires your complete attention. It took me a second viewing to fully appreciate the toothsome detail. In retrospect, every gesture counts.
Le Carré once said that filming a book is like making “a cow into an Oxo cube”, but he has ended up with a sophisticated bouillon. As a producer, he had a hand in the recipe, and he also makes a Hitchcockian cameo. Look out for him in the second M16 Christmas party episode, which features Father Christmas in a Lenin mask. Le Carré is a white-haired old spy on the right of the screen, singing the Soviet National Anthem, but his presence is felt in every scene of the movie.