Review of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: British espionage thriller meets Swedish crime

I never thought I’d say this, but I was glad of some Welsh rain this afternoon, as it gave me and Mr. Peabody the perfect opportunity to go to the cinema. There, we treated ourselves to the 1970s espionage fest that is Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, adapted from the John le Carré classic of 1974.

The film has received rave reviews, including a rare 5 stars from The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, and I can understand why: this is film-making of the highest quality, which is beautifully acted and styled, and recreates a tense Cold War atmosphere to perfection.

Although the plot is fiendishly complex in places, with some mind-boggling twists and turns, the fundamentals of the story are always clear. There is a Soviet mole in the highest echelons of the British Secret Service, working for ‘Karla’, the enigmatic head of the KGB. It falls to George Smiley, a forcibly ‘retired’ senior intelligence officer, to flush the mole out. The spy has to be one of four people, all of whom Smiley has worked with for years, and so he is dealing not just with a political betrayal, but with a long-running personal betrayal as well.

The film allows Smiley’s investigation to unfold at a leisurely pace, as he tracks down the key players whose recollections will allow him to identify the mole. We are also shown Smiley’s own memories of past events (including a Christmas office party with Le Carré as an extra), which he is forced to view with new eyes – a painful process that reveals how one person’s betrayal has undermined all their supposed achievements down the years. Seeing things clearly is a dominant theme: early in the film, Smiley visits an optician’s and emerges with a new pair of glasses – the big, rectangular type worn by Alec Guinness’s Smiley in the 1970s TV adaptation. But this is much more than simple homage to the famous earlier series: the new glasses have a deeply symbolic function, showing how Smiley has sharpened his vision, in order to see the truth properly for the first time.

The acting is excellent throughout. Gary Oldman is a wonderfully controlled Smiley, whose close-ups reveal, through the minutest of facial movements, the tensions that lie beneath. There are also wonderful performances by John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, Colin Firth and Kathy Burke (who has possibly the best line of the whole film). Hats off, as well, to the film’s cinematographers, stylists, and lighting crew, who evoke a gloomy 70s Britain so perfectly: there’s no James Bond glitz or glamour here, just a succession of dark, windowless secret-service offices and hideouts, in a 1970s palette made up almost exclusively of browns (from beige to fawn to mud and a thousand shades in-between). The humdrum office life of the secret service is beautifully depicted (Trebor Mint, anyone?) and in some ways the whole story can be read as just mundane office-room politics, with various divisional heads pitted against one another for supremacy over the years … albeit with more geo-political issues and human lives at stake than your average workplace.

So how does a review of this seemingly ultra-British film end up on a transnational crime blog? Well, the film was co-funded by France’s StudioCanal, and the director, Tomas Alfredson, is Swedish. Best known for his 2008 vampire film Let the Right One In, Alfredson has done a tremendous job of adapting le Carré’s depiction of the classic Cold War crimes of treachery and betrayal. And in its understated style and underlying melancholia, I see this film connecting back to Swedish crime writers such as Sjowall & Wahloo and Henning Mankell, whose investigative figures, like Smiley, plod their way in a dogged and melancholy fashion towards the truth.

In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the quintessential British espionage thriller meets the best of Swedish crime writing. It’s a winning combination and I can only hope that the other two novels in the Karla Trilogy will make it to the big screen via the same film-making team.

There’s also a lovely A-Z of TTSS from The Guardian available here.

18 thoughts on “Review of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: British espionage thriller meets Swedish crime

  1. thank you for this wonderful review and the connecting to Mankell is a thought for me to ponder on. I have always loved the BBC version, still do, and now love this one. Lack of background music for large sections of the film was most welcome, the total silence adding to the tension and the concentration of the cinema audience I was with, was absolute. I have read the book several times and know the story backwards and forwards, but this film illuminated characters and thoughts that I hd never noticed before. I also hope that Smiley’s People is next on the list to be filmed. Wonderful film

    • Thanks very much, Elaine. And there can be no finer compliment for a fan of the novel and the TV series to be so positive about the film. It must have been quite a tall order to create a faithful and yet ‘new’ film adaptation when such a highly-praised TV adaptation had already been made. I hear the author is very happy too…

  2. Great review, Mrs P. Despite having just re-watched the Alec G version, which had the luxury of more length as a TV series, I’ll have to see this remake it seems! I think Smiley’s People is even better, actually, bit more subtle and complex rather than “who is the mole, perm one from four”. But I don’t mean to cavil, I’m sure it is v good, and like the Mankell analogy, too.

    • Thanks, Maxine. I couldn’t resist today: I had to buy the book – which I’ve never read before (gasp!) – and can already tell from having cantered to chapter 10 that they did a great job with the film adaptation, in terms of capturing that murky Cold War mood, and dealing effectively with a labyrinthine plot. I’m now rubbing my hands with glee at the thought of the other two parts of the trilogy, and the Alex G. adaptation, which I remember very vaguely when my dad was watching it back in 1979. Lovely to have so many treats ahead! I would obviously recommend the film, but can understand why you might be hesitating – is it that odd ‘clash’ effect when you see two adaptations too close to one another?

  3. I saw the film on Sunday too & thoroughly enjoyed it. I saw it with my husband & 2 sons (both in their late teens). Unlike me they are not used to watching slow-burners and thought it a good film but lacking in pace! Well, that’s men for you.
    Btw – Smiley’s new glasses also served a very useful purpose. They enabled us to tell which scenes were from the ‘present’ and which from the past. as did the presence or lack of a beard on Ricki Tarr’s face.
    I have ordered the Alec Guinness TV series on DVD from Amazon to compare with the film. After all these years, my memory of it is very hazy.

    • Thanks, Yvonne, and nice observational powers there in relation to the glasses and beard – worthy of a secret service operative, in fact. Hadn’t spotted those details, but you’re quite right.

      I’ve heard a couple of other people comment about the lack of pace or action – presumably meaning non-stop car chases or explosions. But like you, I was gripped all the way through (and am now equally gripped by the book). It would be interesting to see if audience reactions to the film are split along gender lines, although you’d think that a film about the secret service and featuring a predominantly male cast would appeal precisely to a male audience.

  4. Thanks for this fascinating review Mrs P as the juxtaposition of the two styles of mystery hadn’t really occurred to me but of course you are quite right and that connection makes total sense to me now. I have no idea if one really can look for gender splits in audiences for this kind of film given that it is not really aimed at what might be termed the broadest of canvases – I know men and women who love Le Carre and loved the film, and men and women who couldn’t care less about the book, finding it book incredibly ponderous and slow, but loved the move all the same!

    • Thanks, cavershamragu. I’m not sure I would have made the link if it hadn’t been for the nationality of the director. But maybe it was the underlying ‘Swedish sensibility’ of the material that attracted him to the project? Who knows… I think you’re right that the appeal of the book and film, or the book vs the film, is complex issue, and a straightforward gender analysis isn’t going to provide the answer. Am really interested in this question now. I for one have now become fascinated with all things secret service and Cold War, and my next bit of reading after TTSS will be on the Philby case.

  5. I’ve just finished the novel, which was excellent. I can now see that the film adaptation reordered parts of the the narrative, resulting in slightly different tensions and emphases – but it’s been done extremely well, and is faithful to the essence of the book. One other interesting thing: I realise that I was picturing Alec Guinness rather than Gary Oldman as Smiley in my mind’s eye while reading. Perhaps this is because AG is so iconic in the role, but may also be because he is a better physical fit for the George Smiley as described in the novel: ‘Small, podgy and at best middle-aged, he was by appearance one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth’.

  6. Back again! I’m astounded by the eagle eye of a vintage blogger who noticed the container of Aqua Manda talc on the mantlepiece at Kathy Burke’s place. The colours were superb (any colour you like as long as it’s nicotine stained) and does anyone know where that library is located?

  7. Is it coming over here across to the Pond for us crime fiction enthusiasts, who will get out fix in any format?

    • Hi Kathy – From what I can glean online, the answer is yes, but that you will have to wait a little while – release dates in November or even December are mentioned on different sites. Worth the wait at least!

  8. Pingback: Three Oscar nominations for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

  9. Pingback: In praise of John le Carré | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

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