Release Date: Friday 16th September
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hands, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy and John Hurt
Running Time: 127 mins
Ever since the arrival of James Bond and Jason Bourne, the spy genre is being dominated by action sequences – Bourne taking out an entire army with a biro and newspaper and Mr Bond commandeering a fighter jet to save the world. The Michael Bay’s of this world have proclaimed the action/spy movies have to be dumb in order to be successful. There’s only one film that have proved this theory wrong: Christopher Nolan’s Inception.
Tomas Alfredsons’ adaptation of John Le Carrie’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy tries to achieve the same level of sophistication, but ultimately falls short. But this still has more brawn and intelligence than McG’s entire filmography. It’s an elaborate chess game with high stakes that pointedly discusses the nature of trust and identity.
George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a retired MI6 agent after a mission in Istanbul – involving Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) – goes terribly wrong. After the death of Control (John Hurt), he’s been given the task to find the Russian mole at the top of MI6 by Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney). Smiley is given four possible candidates: Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hands) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik).
TTSS has, quite possibly, the greatest all-star British cast ever ranging from recent Oscar winner Colin Firth to up-and-coming stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy, the ever-reliable Mark Strong and the always-brilliant Gary Oldman. The quality doesn’t stop there; behind the camera we have Tomas Alfredson, fresh from the success of his brilliant Let The Right One In. But for some abnormal reason, TTSS only manages to be good and not the masterpiece every British newspaper is proclaiming it to be.
This is an anti-Hollywood spy film, there’s no car chase, no gunfights and no cataclysmic explosions to rattle any multiplex sound system. We’re treated to quieter moments of character interaction and motivation that slowly begin to unwind as we reach our conclusion. For fast paced action the fanatics amongst us are going to be disappointed, TTSS is a slow moving film – in a good way. Alfredson builds the tension to a paranoid state of mind as Smiley begins to get closer and closer – there’re real lives at stake. The film takes a methodical, procedural approach to how Smiley breaks down each component of the mystery, in the same way David Fincher managed to achieve for Zodiac.
However, the David Fincher comparisons don’t stop there, as Alfredson creates a cold and very bleak colour pallet; we are always on the outside looking into this heartless line of business full of treachery and deceit. Credit must go to cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema for capturing this period in time with such lurid detail. The evocation of the 1970s is top-notch and sure to be nominated in technical categories.
Gary Oldman is one of the most versatile actors ever to grace the big screen. With a role as complex and subtle as George Smiley, it’s an absolute pleasure to watch an actor, with great venom, like Gary Oldman to sink his teeth into. His Smiley is unemotional, cunning and supremely intelligent; he’s a great poker player that never gives anyway his hand. Surely this will give him the Oscar nomination he’s so evidently deserved.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy cement their places as one of the most exciting acting prospects working today. Hardy’s Ricky Tarr is a strong yet emotionally vulnerable MI6 operative who’s searching for redemption that will make a long lasting impression. Cumberbatch is a leading man in waiting as he walks through the screen with effortless charm and confidence.
The film’s faults aren’t based on the its technical or acting accomplishments, it’s based on the script. Adapting a book into a film is the hardest form of scriptwriting to accomplish. It isn’t simply copying the book word for word and placing it on the big screen; the writers have to condense the material and in this case, Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Conner struggle to do so. The film’s use of flashback upon flashback becomes increasingly convoluted and confusing as we’re taken through the complex nature of the operation. Intelligent cinema isn’t based on trying to immediately confuse and confound the audience; it’s about navigating them through a devious moral maze.
Even with a running time of 127 minutes, TTSS would’ve benefitted from being 10 or 15 minutes longer. There’s a lot of exposition to get through, and most of the relationships – that are relevant to the story – are steam rolled for time constraints. So when we finally arrive at the finale, it’s a whimper and not a bang because there’s no real significance, we never get a sense of the severe consequences of this individual’s treachery, which is the biggest disappointment the film has to offer.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is full of exceptional acting and technical proficiency, but a perplexing narrative and weak relationships damper this potential thriller masterpiece – it’s too cold for its own good. Maybe it should’ve stayed as BBC mini-series.