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A masterclass in espionage

A rare five-star rating for the new version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

IT'S A rare thing indeed when a film is lauded for what it does not have, for in our time of computer-generated images, clever dialogue, astounding views, powerful music and eye-catching actors, the theory seems to be that you have to pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap to pack the punters in.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is one of those exceptional films where less is more and if an audience invests the right degree of concentration, they will be rewarded with cinematic gold.

Not only has the film triumphed over the ‘heavy music and harsh lights' brigade of film-makers, it has also dealt a fatal blow to nostalgic old grumps who say, spluttering into their cocoa, that there was no need to re-make the astounding 1970s BBC television production of the John le Carré spy novel.

Viewers of a certain age can recall – with a faultless memory rarely applied to family birthdays – that Alec Guinness was THE George Smiley, that there could never be another Connie Sachs after Beryl Reid and Control's raddled paranoia was an acting feat not to be repeated.

Well, in many respects, old grumps will have to admit – perhaps grudgingly – that they were wrong. John Hurt's performance as Control in the film is a masterclass in genius on the edge of senility and Gary Oldman is a George Smiley we can respect, and indeed fear, although despite her best efforts, Kathy Burke is not quite the plaintive and broken memory machine of the original and brilliant back-room Connie.

Perhaps a clue to the power of this film – which must feature at the Oscars or there is no justice – is in the audience reaction at Newbury Vue on Friday evening. There wasn't a spare seat in the house and the remarkable silence as, young and old, the audience was spellbound by what unfolded.

And it is a tale that does take some following as Smiley is brought back out of forced retirement to cleanse the stables of the mess caused by a Russian mole at the heart of The Circus.

The clues are delivered languidly, the conversation light but with that undertone of menace when people say little and mean more. Colin Firth is wonderfully brittle as the brilliant but doomed Bill Hayden, while Oldman and Firth are surrounded by some of the best character actors in the world intent on making a masterpiece.

Swedish director Thomas Alfredson has only made a couple of English language films, but he knows – in that remarkable Swedish way – how to speak volumes through colour, landscape and setting.

Budapest, with its gloomy light and gothic ambiance, provided most of the outdoor scenes while the set on the inside of the Circus looked like a down-at-heel factory, where everyone could pack up and vanish at a moment's notice.

There is little point comparing the 1970s version with the film because they are different genres with different aspirations. But in three respects, they are the same.

First, they both show how Britain was America's poodle from the 1970s on; second, how coldly, inefficiently and horribly spies can do business and third, how if the story, the actors and the direction is right, audiences will breathe a thank-you as they leave, silently and reluctantly.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (15)

Running time 127 mins

Review rating *****

N2 film reviews – supported by Newbury Vue

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