Film Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Film directed by Tomas Alfredson, Screenplay Bridget O'Connor, Peter Straughan based on the novel by John le Carré. 4* out of 5, writes Alex Radzyner

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Gary Oldman is George Smiley
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Alex Radzyner
On 20 September 2011 15:04

In her 2011 BBC Reith Lectures, Securing Freedom, the former Head of MI5, Dame Elisa Manningham-Buller recalls a time when a number of steam-kettles were kept by her organisation dedicated to surreptitiously opening intercepted letters without the final recipient noticing. 

Some may think that nostalgia is not what it used to be, but the main strand of action in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy takes us back to 1973 in MI6, the British Foreign Intelligence Service not a million miles from Elisa Manningham-Buller's reminiscences.

This, however, is a time when the business of spying is a largely intellectual pursuit carried out by clever men, expert at chess and solving The Times crossword puzzle. Fluent in Russian or Hungarian, they are rare exceptions; graduates of Cambridge or Oxford University.

Adept at office politics, this is where a lot of the pent-up emotional energy goes. Their sexual orientation varies. Some are straight, some bisexual, many are gay.

Having been brought up in elite English fee paying schools they now analyse coldly what their counterparts in the Soviet Union -- their Cold War Adversary -- are up to.

Each side in this very serious mind-game tries to recruit defectors and double-agents from the other. Of course, the Americans were the Soviets' main adversary. And the UK government is keen on maintaining the much vaunted “special relationship” with the US.

Promoting this in 1973 demands that the superior skills British master-spies have honed over the centuries be deployed in order to maintain Britain's position as the preferred and trusted partner of the US. 

In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy the combination of outer calmness and inner stress is slowly brought to fever pitch by the suspicion that one of the inner circle of high ranking civil servants at the Head of the British Intelligence Service is likely to be a Soviet spy.

In the eyes of the coveted Americans MI6 has become a leaky ship.

The main protagonist, George Smiley has recently retired after his boss and mentor is forced out of the service. He is brought back by his erstwhile political master and charged with the mission to unmask this double-agent. The presumed traitor must have been a close colleague for decades.

Or is Smiley himself the gamekeeper turned KGB-run poacher? 

Making an absorbing film out of a book, where most of the crucial action is the interpretation of facts found and scenes remembered by the protagonists, is a challenging task.

But the adaptation of the screenplay and the outstanding direction by the Swede Tomas Alfredsen (who came to international attention with Let the Right One In) succeed completely.

 Keeping up with the twists and turns of the plot demands close attention from the viewer. There are many flashbacks, jumps in time which are not announced or signposted; but the viewers' attention is richly rewarded.

The photography with its evocation of sepia tones, the set with many fine details, and the costume come together and evoke masterfully the gloomy dingy London of 1973. They contribute marvellously to the atmosphere that generates the rising suspense.

What the television series Madmen did for design and fashion of the 1960s Madison Avenue advertising crowd, this film does for 1970s British Intelligence agents in pre-big-bang London.

The best of male British acting talent is led by Gary Oldman, restrained this time as one has not seen him on screen before. The high quality of the understated performances by the all-talent cast round off a thoroughly successful production. 

The film is not totally devoid of humour either.

There is the singing of the Soviet National Anthem at the British Spies' annual office party. And at one point as Smiley and his sidekick go about their business in the bleak East End of London, graffiti on the wall behind them proclaims “The Future is Female”.

Which brings us back to Dame Elisa Manningham-Buller. Sadly the steam-kettles for opening letters are probably gone for good. Those of us who enjoy happy endings would like to think that they have been requisitioned for making tea.

As far as the future of this film is concerned, one or more Academy Awards seem assured. 

Alex Radzyner is the writer of the 'London Theater Goer' blog.

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