(Using the tie-in book cover because I couldn’t find a decent movie poster without putting (yet another) computer into harm’s way *long story*)
In the bleak days of the Cold War, espionage veteran George Smiley is forced from semi-retirement to uncover a Soviet agent within MI6.
I’ve been wanting to watch this movie since I saw the trailer: it had a lot of well-known and brilliant actors from the UK (Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy…even Downton Abbey‘s Laura Carmichael had a brief cameo in the film) and the book is a classic. Granted, I think I missed a lot of the detail when I first read the book (definitely need to re-read it) so I was curious to see how it was adapted. Contains spoilers ahead!
Visually, this film was pretty stunning. It really looks and feels like you’ve been transported back to 1973 complete with the cars (which my family and I were endlessly talking about) and the outfits (those glasses!) and the smoking indoors. There’s lots of neutral colours used, no doubt to convey the seriousness of the story and the nature of these people’s work. It’s filmed in a rather artistic way, with wide-sweeping shots through a large setting, off-centre shots, contrasting shots between the fore and background and just showing average, everyday activities in an artistic way. A lot of the time, it feels like you’re looking in on a conversation or a feeling, which apparently was what they were going for. Sometimes it makes the movie feel like it’s moving in a slow crawl but it does set up the context of these characters’ lives, that despite of the mundaneness, these line of work these people are part of is quite dangerous. The soundtrack also adds to the period that this story takes place in, and takes over when there’s no dialogue going on (which can go on for stretches at a time).
I think the screenwriters did a wonderful job in adapting the material to a two-hour feature. Granted, I read the book first but it did clear up a lot of the confusion that I had experienced when reading the book. I’ve come to appreciate how bad Karla (the Moscow equivalent to the West/MI6)’s plans were to really hitting back at the West by ilfiltrating their spy networks and how everyone unwittingly played a role in making Operation Witchcraft happen. I’ve also come to understand a little better Ricki Tarr’s involvement with the whole situation and how crucial he was to the eventual discovery of the mole. It is a slow burn though, with different pieces working at their own pace; it wasn’t until Ricki Tarr’s appearance and his retelling of what happened to him that things start shifting into gear and Smiley starts going after the suspects. However, it makes sense because it’s as though we are moving along with Smiley, trying to figure out what’s going on. As it’s been a while since I’ve read the book, I don’t know how much was omitted and simplified and changed but one thing that did stand out for me was the implied scene that Peter was a homosexual. It surprised me because I definitely would’ve remembered that detail but it turns out it was a creative decision. In the end it does work for the film since the theme of sexuality in the spy world played out to a certain extent in Ricki Tarr & Irina’s relationship.
The acting is fantastic, totally in keeping with the period that the story is in. Gary Oldman was especially great in this film in bringing George Smiley to life. He’s calm and restrained, clearly a professional who’s spent his life in the spy business. He even comes off as distinct in the way he moved; walking across a park or swimming across a lake, you can tell that something’s out of place, that despite of doing the mundane things he’s a man who does something very specific and particular in life. Benedict Cumberbatch also shone in this movie as Peter Guillaum, who becomes Smiley’s sort of right-hand man, acting as Smiley’s eyes in the office. He’s a little more emotional than Smiley but overall a professional who really knows how to smoothly work his cover. Everyone else, from Colin Firth to John Hurt gave some wonderful performances for their own bits of screentime. However, I wished we saw more of Ciaran Hinds; from all of the principal members of Control’s team, he had the least amount of scenes and even when he was under suspicion, it was only passing.
Overall, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was an interesting, thoughtful and intriguing movie to watch. It’s definitely not your typical spy movie with heart-pounding action non-stop and complex spy technology involved but it does portray a realistic view of the spy world during this period complete with the bureaucratic wrangling and long bouts of time where nothing happens. It does have a few intense and gory moments where a violent action does take place but it is not as often as you would think; a lot of the action involves moving around, flashback moments and figuring out what exactly is going on. While I enjoyed the movie and was able to follow through without a problem, the script could have used a bit more dialogue to explain some of the scenes further but all in all it was a good movie and definitely worth checking out if you’re into the genre.