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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Directed by Tomas Alfredson

UK, 2010

Cornerhouse, 18 September 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Another stylish adaptation, following on from the classic BBC TV series starring Alec Guinness, of John le Carre’s fine novel.

For this film, Gary Oldman wears George Smiley’s specs and he brings a certain hum-drum gravitas to the role.  He is a machine running on reserves of unexpressed emotion, a man of integrity yet a user.  At one point, by way of persuading a minor agent to do his will, he promises to do all he can to bring his Russian girlfriend safely home.  When he makes this promise, he knows she is dead.  So, a cool operator.

The feel of 1970s England is well-captured.  It is a small country of awful furniture and food, where the dregs of deference can still be found.  Wimpy bars are ubiquitous pimples.  Cigarettes are always piled up in ashtrays, because everyone smokes in offices and indoors.  It all looks ugly-beautiful, has a kind of quotidian splendour.  You wouldn’t want to live there, mind.  Here (to paraphrase L. P. Hartley) the past is a foreign country you wouldn’t ever like to visit.

Some purists might object to the alteration to the character of Peter Guillam because he is gay here but not, so far as I remember, in the novel.  However, I think Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal has a poetic truth.  Outwardly, Guillam is a ladies’ man and everyone in the Circus seems to be living a lie, leading some kind of double life.  Mark Strong gives the outstanding performance, but all the principals pull their weight.

This terrific film reaffirms the value of John le Carre’s work, which at its best is about trust, betrayal, truth, courage, things that will always matter.