With the resurgence of the super spy as seen in the popularity of the Bourne franchise and the Daniel Craig reboot of the perennial 007 series, it is only right that the corrective bucket of cold water be applied. David Cornwell, who took the pseudonym John le Carré under Foreign Office rules, has made a career of writing against Ian Fleming’s fantasy creation, again and again insisting on a reality of betrayal, banality and English skies, grey with waiting rain. Cinematically, he has been best served by directors who were foreign to the particularly English post-war crisis that he explores - Sidney Lumet, Martin Ritt, Fred Schepisi and Fernando Meirelles - and this tradition continues with Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
In a way, Alfredson’s film is not only an adaptation of the novel, but also a remake of the popular television series that made Alec Guinness synonymous with George Smiley, le Carré’s enigmatic bureaucratic spy master. Taking this role is Gary Oldman in his meatiest part for decades. Oldman brings a sense of hidden danger and tightly repressed rage to Smiley. It is a perfectly measured performance, which, in its restraint, allows the ample cast, drawn from the cream of British male acting talent, to provide the fireworks around him. He is the eye of the storm that imperceptibly directs the storm. Mark Strong, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbacht are the three up-and-coming young Turks, and Colin Firth, Toby Jones and John Hurt are the old guard. If anything there is too much talent, and Ciaran Hinds and Stephen Graham (both fantastic actors), for example, have very little to do but fill places at the table.
The sense of place and time is perfect: a pre-swinging London, rain-drenched and as cold as the war being fought. Alfredson has an eye for the telling detail: Smiley eating his Wimpy burger with a knife and fork, the rundown hotels and the looming post-war office buildings with the orange wallpaper. Staying true to the spirit of the book, Tinker is the anti-Bourne. There might be a shooting but there won’t be a shoot-out; there are paper chases rather than car chases. One of the most exciting scenes in the film involves the movement of a file through an office building. Guns are signed for, pocketed, but perhaps never fired. It often comes down to men in rooms talking, men in parks talking, men on airstrips talking. The story is complicated but screenwriter Peter Straughan allows it to unfold with its byzantine complexity intact, probably assuming most of the audience will already know the plot from the series or the book. There are very few genuine twists, the film aiming more for a grinding inevitability, a weary despairing admission that what you always feared was true.
Perhaps the film’s most daring innovation is its rebranding of Cold War homosexuality. Whereas previously being gay in a Cold War context (especially in the aftermath of Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess) was seen as tantamount to being a traitor, here sexuality is something that must be hidden or itself betrayed. Aside from one explicitly gay character, there is an underlying bromance of sorts, which adds an emotional sting to the eventual revelations of betrayal.