"There's a rotten apple, Jim. We have to find it".
One of the many joys to be had from reading John Le Carré’s magnificent 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, lay in finding one’s way through the intricacies of his labyrinthine plotting. It’s a book, much like the famous BBC television adaptation made five years later, that presented and unravelled its mysteries slowly and by miniscule degrees, the brilliant denouement deriving its power as much from the cumulative effect of the twists and turns of its narrative as the minutiae within which they are encompassed; exquisitely drawn character beats and topographical descriptions that pinpoint an exact time and place (then contemporaneous), a not-entirely-invented, wholly realised world of scalphunters, lamplighters and betrayal, where the devil is always in the detail.
With a running time of more than five hours, even director John Irvin’s 1979 TV adaptation remains a narratively dense affair, albeit one with the luxury of allowing its dramatic incline to steepen almost imperceptibly, as much through character as through the plot’s game of snakes and ladders. Let the Right One In (2009) director Tomas Alfredson and writers Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor certainly had a task on their hands in stripping Le Carré’s serpentine narrative down to its basic mechanics. For the most part resisting any inclinations to rush the slow-burn delivery, Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor draws in rather than opens up the novel for the screen; by necessity of its two hour running time, events are referred to rather than seen or condensed to their basic elements, the camera often a fine substitute for Le Carré’s prose as it picks out a bead of sweat crashing onto a table, a pair of untied shoelaces giving away an affair, or a bespectacled George Smiley swimming on Hampstead Heath, Alfredson excels at the details, progressing narrative and revealing character with short, single shots. His style, whilst beautifully cinematic (as when the camera takes a ride up through the file delivery system of The Circus) is also icily objective, a tricky balance when building such muted dramatic peaks reliant on following a heavily-condensed plot, so it’s credit to the excellent cast (and casting) that even the most streamlined characters make enough of an impression to give some punch to the pay-off, even the novel’s great invisible presence, Anne Smiley is keenly felt off-screen.
In both adaptations of Tinker, Tailor, the drama grows entirely out of dialogue, not action. It’s what the characters say and what they say about each other that forwards the plot and reveals character, and it’s a result of the excellent performances that we don’t simply drown in exposition. Gary Oldman immediately inhabits the iconic role of George Smiley, recalled out of forced retirement to hunt out a mole in The Circus, home of MI6. His is a tougher, steelier, more inscrutable reading than Alec Guinness’, his monologue one of my favourite scenes this year. Tom Hardy also delivers another fantastic performance as AWOL agent Ricki Tarr and it’s a real pleasure seeing Kathy Burke back on screen as retired Circus employee Connie Sachs.
Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema works with a grainy, muddy grey palette, which along with the production design serves to perfectly evoke period and place, a world of cellotape and corridors, bedsits and biros, which Alfredson takes full advantage of, breaking up the dialogue driven plot with a keen eye for detail, as much to set a scene as build character or inject movement, structurally moving back and forth in time, using flashbacks within flashbacks. It’s a film that grows with a second viewing, when one is somewhat familiar with its plot turns, and whilst perhaps not as subtle as its TV counterpart, remains a classy companion to Le Carré’s novel.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – 2011 – France, UK, Germany – 127 mins – Dir : Tomas Alfredson
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is on general release now.