Directed by Tomas Alfredson. Starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciarán Hinds 15A cert, gen release, 127 min
Here's a brooding, brilliant reworking of John le Carré's classic tale of spies who never came in from the cold, writes DONALD CLARKE
Right. We shall start.
In adapting John le Carré's peerless espionage novel, Tomas Alfredson, director of Let the Right One In, cannot hope to avoid comparisons with the BBC's fine 1979 TV version. One thinks of that awful recent film of Brideshead Revisited, which, when set beside the near-contemporaneous Granada series, came across like a sequence of wet whimpers from a dying kitten.
Stripping away most of le Carré’s gorgeously theatrical dialogue, Alfredson tells his absurdly complicated story through furtive glances, fetid images and clanking sound design. Alec Guinness’s incarnation of George Smiley, the aging spymaster in search of a double agent, was, despite his sombre aspect, the sort of chap who could still enjoy a brandy and ginger ale with an old pal.
Gary Oldman is an altogether more forbidding presence. With his downturned mouth and cracked voice, he seems to carry the weight of Britain’s postwar decline on his slumped shoulders. Alfredson has triumphantly proven that there is space for at least two, subtly contrasting versions of the same source material.
Anybody familiar with the novel would laugh at the notion that its plot could be summarised in the central paragraph of a modestly sized review (or in a feature film, for that matter). But we’ll try.
Following the public failure of a misguided mission in Hungary, an assorted cabal of high-ranking mandarins has deposed Control (John Hurt), the aging chief, and edged out Smiley, his loyal lieutenant. Everything appears to be progressing efficiently. A new source of intelligence is delivering such a rich supply of nuggets that the relevant minster feels able to begin trading information with the hitherto wary Americans.
Then a renegade operative, played with characteristic charisma by Tom Hardy, comes across an extraordinary story. A Russian contact tells him there is a mole at the top of British intelligence. Smiley is called in from retirement to discover which of his old buddies has been passing the crown jewels to Moscow Central. Is it dashing, sexually predatory Bill Haydon (Colin Firth)? Might it be the working-class, plain- speaking Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds)? What about the slippery, social-climbing Toby Esterhase (David Dencik)?
It’s probably not worth worrying too much about the answer to those questions. If the film has a problem it is that, forced to boil so many characters down into narrative stock cubes, the suspects’ personalities are only fleetingly sketched. The final revelation is less interesting than the gorgeously smooth mechanics of the investigation.
A glance at Let the Right One Inwill confirm that Alfredson is a master of atmosphere. In Tinker, Tailor, assisted by overdone-cabbage cinematography from Hoyte van Hoytema and an ironically jaunty score by Alberto Iglesias, he offers a version of the mid-1970s – the corruption in the intelligence community reflecting the decay in every other arm of the state – that seems to take place underwater (brackish, polluted water at that).
Every aspect of the film gestures towards oppression and impotence. Even the knotty complexity of the plot, brilliantly streamlined by scriptwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, comes across like a mass of hard homework that Smiley must finish before being sent back to some awful prep school.
We hardly need to reiterate the ancient qualification – dragged out continually since The Spy Who Came in from the Coldemerged nearly 50 years ago – that le Carré's world has little in common with James Bond's. We could go further. So solemn is Afredson's film that it makes most previous versions of the author's work look like Austin Powers.
None of which is meant as criticism. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spycan, indeed, assert a serious claim to be the best espionage film ever made. Honestly.