If I watched the famous BBC version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 1979, I don’t remember much about it. I probably remember it being on, and Alec Guinness being on the cover of the Radio Times, but it’s not imprinted on my memory. I have better recall for Secret Army, which aired around the same time, and Colditz, which was much earlier. As such, I have no fidelity to it, nor any overwhelming nostalgia for it, as many people have. I’ve certainly never read the le Carré book. So … Tomas Alfredson’s new adaptation, which has been greeted with high praise in all quarters, and which is set in 1973, making it a period piece rather than a contemporary drama, as was the TV series, is something I’m able to assess cleanly and without prejudice.
It’s very good. I admired Alfredson’s previous work, Let The Right One In, which was set in the early 80s, and it’s not stretching credibility to say that there are overlaps between the two films, even though one is about pre-pubescent vampires in Stockholm, and the other is about the British secret service in London (and Budapest, and Istanbul). As a director, he certainly seems interested in atmospheres. A chill descends over both films. Although while in the former, much of the action takes place outside, in the latter, we’re mostly confined to offices.
Gary Oldman has been officially sanctioned, it seems, as a worthy successor to Guinness. Because I don’t really remember Guinness, I have no comparison to make. But Oldman is excellent: conveying much without saying anything, carrying the weight of his experience, good and bad, on slight shoulders, showing strength and authority without menace. His George Smiley is a relic from the Cold War, even though the Cold War is still playing out. The British secret service seems like a relic, here, too. Never mind the hi-tech wizardry and political complexity of Spooks; this is the Civil Service, in non-partitioned offices, with files in folders, and folders on shelves, and shelves in libraries that you have to sign in to use. It’s all about men. Apart from a cameo from Kathy Burke (for which her old pal Oldman apparently tempted her out of acting retirement), there are simply no women. Smiley’s wife is never seen, except once from behind, at the back of a shot, and who she is manages to be vital and unimportant at the same time. (Sian Phillips played her on TV, and I understand she was a key player.) I’m sure this all rings true for the time: it’s the 70s, but it may as well still be the 60s, or the 50s.
That said, it’s a film about men, but not necessarily only for men. It’s not macho. There is a nicely maintained air of homoeroticism at work here – another layer of secrets in a world built on secrecy – and it’s never overplayed. This adaptation, written by a husband-and-wife team, Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor, takes us back to a particular time and place and doesn’t view it through a modern prism: it is what it is, a time capsule. (With, say, Mad Men, set at a time when women were still very much second class citizens, you sense that its writers occasionally try to redress the balance by making its female characters stronger than the men, through sexist guilt.)
Because I don’t know the story in any detail, I have no idea how much it’s been concertinaed, but at two hours, it will have been, maybe radically. As such, I’m not sure I cared enough about which of the four main suspects within MI5 was “the mole.” We didn’t exactly get to know Colin Firth, Ciarán Hands, Toby Jones or David Dencik, spending far more time with Oldman, Mark Strong (particularly good, and given a really deep and complex character), Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch and John Hurt. This reduced the central thriller aspect for me; the essential whodunit. I was happy to let the story unfold, especially in the slow, subtle, sometimes impressionistic way it was told, with short scenes thrown in like jigsaw pieces, but the tension wasn’t there. I make an honourable exception for the sequence in Istanbul with Tom Hardy, with its nod to Rear Window.
I worry that Tinker Tailor has been the recipient of too much hype. It’s very good. A fine cast. Clever writing. Confident direction. But I wonder if its appeal, especially among middle-aged critics, is too predicated on a perhaps dodgy nostalgia for the British 70s, when men were free to do what they liked, the Russians were the enemy, and women took dictation. And you could smoke anywhere.