Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tomas Alfredson’s attachment to rigid realism often detracts from the viewing pleasure of an audience who will often struggle to keep track of the somewhat convoluted plot

Director: Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth
Runtime: 127 mins
Rating: **

Based on the acclaimed novel by John le Carré, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an attempt by director Tomas Alfredson to follow the growing trend of introducing new perspectives on established genres. On the face of it, this could have been a spy film in the vein of the popular Bourne and James Bond franchises, but instead, Alfredson decides to bring a restrained mood of intrigue and uncertainty.

The cast is littered with talent, ranging from the magnetic Gary Oldman to the incredibly talented Tom Hardy, fresh from his success in Inception. Though they are uniformly excellent, Alfredson appears to underuse many of the actors (including no less than Oscar-winner Colin Firth) in favour of stylised silences and seemingly meaningless shots of everyday activity, as if trying to ensure the impressive period design got its fair share of screen time.

The plot concerns the attempt to reveal the identity of a mole inside the British secret service: George Smiley (Oldman) comes out of retirement to try and discover who betrayed an agent (Mark Strong) who was undercover in Hungary. But Alfredson’s attachment to rigid realism often detracts from the viewing pleasure of an audience who will often struggle to keep track of the somewhat convoluted plot. With so many scenes staged in dark, smoke-filled rooms, and characters of questionable motive and allegiance, the result can become confusing, especially to someone who has not watched the earlier TV adaptation or read Le Carré’s novel.

This confusion is not made any simpler by Alfredson’s decision to include flashbacks and red herrings quite so incessantly; as a result, the lengthy running time never seems like quite enough to ensure a balanced pace leading to a satisfying conclusion. Nor is this helped by the film’s absence of humour and the fact that it rarely gives the characters a chance to appear sympathetic to the audience. Even Tom Hardy’s love affair occurs on the job and under the pretence of discovering the identity of the Russian agent. Overall, despite the film’s noble intention of introducing a more restrained version of the traditionally eccentric British spy genre, it ultimately fails to deliver.


  1. I think you missed the point. The downbeat tone is Le Carre’s signature style and is very much the anti-Bond in the same sense as the 60’s classic, The Ipcress File. For the most part this modest tone works. For example, the anecdote made by Smiley about his meeting with the unseen ‘Karla’ is the film’s best scene. The boozy, regretful and lonely delivery of this vital monologue is possibly Oldman’s finest moment on celluloid to date.

    The detailed sense of period is also the film’s greatest strength. The smokey and mundane setting creates a strong sense of context within the paranoid days of the Cold War. Surely you can see the similarities between Smiley’s mole and the exposure of Kim Philby’s Cambridge spy ring.

    Finally, the story is confusing in order to make the audience work towards the ultimate unmasking of the mole. Its main purpose is to get the audience thinking. You wouldn’t want the who-dunnit to be obvious, would you?

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  2. Yeah, inclined to agree with some of what Steve says. Not entirely sure why we would want such a film to be in the same vein as the popular Bond and Bourne franchises either.

    Thought the film was pretty impressive IMO, but you can see why the book perhaps lends itself to serialised drama rather than the all-in-one film format; there’s quite a bit to take in.

    For me, great book, amazing TV show (which is selling dirt cheap at the moment), good film.

    Much like State of Play, which was perhaps the best TV political drama since the original TV Tinker Tailor.

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  3. 16 Oct ’11 at 8:14 am

    Frank Fletcher

    I agree with the previous comments that the understated tone and somber mood is an integral part of the work of John Le Carre. This ambiance is reflective of reality. Intelligence work, like most of life is not highly dramatic, at least not at all times. Many staffers that work in the US Congress will tell you that politicians behind closed doors, in private, are far more sedate than they are when cameras are present. Most intelligence work is collection and then, above all, the analysis of that which is collected. Sometimes the analysis, or evaluation of information is not simple as there is a dearth of information, or there is too much or it is of the wrong type, such that a conclusion cannot easily be arrived at. Thus, there exists a wilderness of mirrors, especially if the opposition has the upper hand because they have a mole in place. In the US this happened when there was a mole hunt underway inside US Intelligence. One of the key people in that effort was the mole himself, Robert Hanssen. That people might go about their work in a serious manner enmeshed in a slow process of sifting through information accumulated sometimes over a period of years all the while waiting for some new piece of the puzzle is how the real world works and is worthy of such a portrayal in film especially since there is no shortage of fast paced and flashy, even violent variants on this theme. When there is a mole, beating down doors and having car chases are techniques that are not going to be as effective as studying the archival material and looking for new bits to weave into the tapestry as it becomes available.

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  4. 18 Oct ’11 at 12:51 pm

    Tom Bonnington

    Hi guys

    Thanks for your responses and I appreciate what you’re saying. I hope it didn’t come across like I wanted car chases and ridiculous set piece stunts. I realised what Alfredson and le Carre were attempting to do. I just felt that in its cinematic form, it was unable to deliver on some aspects that the novel and TV series were more successful at getting across. The atmosphere was certainly tense and the pacing intentionally slow but, as someone who hasn’t read the book, I found it difficult to “weave into tapestry,” as Frank aptly puts it, the different plot strands and information available. Now, I’m not promoting the ‘dumbing down’ of cinema at all here but I think it could have been clearer presented and still retained the uneasy atmosphere, which I was actually impressed with although due to the restrictions on word count, I was perhaps unable to convey in my review.

    Thanks again for taking the time to read it.

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