Warning: this review contains spoilers!
John le Carré knows a thing or two about spying. Between 1960 – 1964 the acclaimed author worked as an intelligence officer for MI6 (following two years service at MI5), having his career swiftly curtailed when Cambridge Five defector Kim Philby outed British agents to the KGB. Fast-forward to 1974 and Philby has become Bill Haydon, the suave Soviet mole in Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, the first novel in le Carré’s Smiley vs Karla series. The author’s experience has served him well, and although Tinker Tailor – adapted here by Swedish auteur Tomas Alfredson – isn’t autobiographical, it is almost photographically exact in its detailing of MI6’s inner-workings – especially top branch’s damp, moulding assembly chamber, headed by the vitriolic Control (John Hurt).
My initial viewing of Tinker Tailor was dedicated to untangling its central mole-in-the-circus mystery, but re-watches have unearthed an entirely different knot of riddles – the private lives of its leading men. First consider Haydon (Colin Firth), whose liaison with Smiley’s wife is strictly professional, conceived by Karla to cloud the spy’s judgement. “It was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one“, he later says of his defection. Alfredson leaves us to judge this conceited double-crosser by the cut of his suit, and the specific shade of beige that complements both his shoes and jacket. I imagine Haydon’s house – or apartment, even – as largely empty, and decorated in compulsively exact arrangements. During the film’s incredible closing montage, set to Julio Iglesias’ warbling rendition of La Mer, we witness a rogue glance between Haydon and Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), his best friend. Their lingering gaze suggests so much, but surely I can’t be the first to read latent homosexuality into this scene? You’ll decide for yourself, and another strength ofTinker Tailor is interpretation. The mole is outed, yes, and the plot resolved, but each action undertaken has a doubly complex motivation.
As I said in my original review, “these are not so much men as bacteria; homunculi; clandestine shadows.” The fact is, we never really learn anything of their private lives, and certain characters – Roy Bland, played by Ciarán Hinds – never become more than their reputation. His code-name, Soldier, suggests a past, but even the man’s outward appearance denies us personal association. Indeed, odd as it sounds, the fashion of Tinker Tailor is one of its most vital elements. Ultimately though, each of Control’s suspected four should remain enigmas – it is for the very fact that we know nothing about them, cannot judge their integrity or measure their loyalty, that the mystery works. Each man slithers through the film deceptively, and I chortled upon my second viewing when remembering that Witchcraft’s treasury is nicknamed The Reptile Fund. This seems especially fitting for its keeper, Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), whose narrow, saurian features and hunched frame put me in mind of Notre Dame’s gargoyles.
The performances are uniformly terrific, but special mention must go to Gary Oldman’s Oscar nominated Smiley. We’re used to seeing the actor spill into furious rage, à la Stansfield in Léon (Besson, 1994), but here every emotion is internal, and released in a throaty whisper. There are moments where you can actually see the character’s intellect at work, analyzing and calculating each thought before it leaves his pursed lips. In many ways he’s the Batman to Karla’s Joker; two sides of the same coin, each obsessed by the other. “He’s a fanatic“, Smiley says of his rival, but the same is true of him. The rest of the cast are equally brilliant, with Tom Hardy proving especially effective in his brief screentime, bringing incredible emotional heft to what is basically exposition – when recounting his affair with a Moscow official’s wife, we are treated not only to a captivating piece of the plot’s puzzle, but also to one of the most affecting romantic tragedies in contemporary cinema. And that’s the true genius of Alfredson’s film – from two hours of plot he draws rich, complex portraits of men caught in ritualistic obsession, denying themselves any form of a life for the sake of unraveling that last elusive thread. I’ve seen Tinker Tailor three times now, and with each viewing I care less about the plot and more about the people. I wonder about Haydon and Prideaux, and the lives they lead before Karla. I wonder about that glance, and its myriad readings. These are deeply complicated men.
The DVD is impeccably presented in terms of image and sound, but I would recommend shelling out for the Blu-Ray – Hoytema’s macro photography will be best served by high definition. Extras are a little slim to be honest, and given the complex nature of the film I was rather hoping for something a little more in-depth. Most interesting is a 30-minute interview with le Carré, where he contextualizes and discusses the novel. He’s an impeccable subject. Alongside five deleted scenes (all of which, funnily enough, expose some aspect of the character’s private lives) there are four throwaway featurettes, each skimming over an important element of the film – Smiley, The Circus – or its creators. The other interviews, with Oldman, Firth, Hardy, Alfredson and writer Peter Straughan, are entertaining enough, but don’t actually cover anything of interest – it’s mostly back-slapping and insights that you could gather for yourself. There’s also some footage from the UK premiere, photo galleries and trailers. Disappointing, but still an essential purchase for one of last year’s best films.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is out on DVD & blu-ray 30th January 2012.
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Stars: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbacht
Runtime: 127 min
Country: France, UK, Germany