Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Review

Dave Woodhall wonders how can you improve on perfection? Gary Oldman & co have tried, but did they succeed?

You’ve read the book – a long time ago. You saw the TV series – almost as long ago. So are you ready for the film?

Gary Oldman in Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy

Gary Oldman in Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy

It’s been said that the reason Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has never got the big screen treatment was because the 1979 TV adaptation could never be improved on. The performance of Alec Guinness was certainly one of the great television performances but 32 years later Gary Oldman comes close.

The story is familiar – a British intelligence mission behind the Iron Curtain ends in failure and brings an end to the career of several operatives including George Smiley (played by Oldman). Years later, the death of his chief Control (John Hurt) brings Smiley out of semi-retirement in an attempt to finally establish the identity of the double-agent who was the target of their original mission.

Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s screenplay resists the temptation to update the plot and so this remains a period piece, while never becoming dated. The Russians are still the bad guys and the British usually play by the rules. Nobody carries a cigarette lighter-cum-rocket launcher and neither do they escape from the jaws of certain death by turning their watch into a bombproof, flying motor bike. This film is about dialogue, cinematography and some fine acting – particularly by Oldman, whose chillingly understated performance fills the screen with the icy presence of what will surely be at least an Oscar-nominated presence. Sir Alec would have approved.

Yet if Oldman is the star of the show, the rest of the cast are not far behind. The character of Control sees John Hurt in masterful form, while Colin Firth’s ‘Tinker’ throws away his lines with the economy of an agent cornered by the KGB and down to his last few bullets. Mark Strong and Tom Hardy are on fine form while Kathy Burke gives a memorable cameo as another retired/failed British agent.

Characters continue to arrive as the plot unfolds, and following the film through to its climax does take patience and concentration, but director Tomas Alfredson ensures that while it’s a long way from the typical modern thriller, not a single one of its 127 minutes drags or seems superfluous.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (the lack of punctuation seemingly the film’s only nod to modernity) is not just a great film, it shows that British acting talent can still match Hollywood special effects.