A new adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was always going to raise the hackles of John le Carre purists, who adored John Irvin’s 1979 mini-series starring Sir Alec Guinness as taciturn spy, George Smiley.
Tomas Alfredson’s film could never compete on an equal footing with its BAFTA award-winning predecessor.
You can’t achieve the same depth of character and plot development in two hours as you can in seven episodes of television.
While scriptwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan have truncated le Carre’s novel, they retain the choking air of suspense that has us holding our breaths until the stunning final frame.
Alfredson demonstrates the same virtuosity behind the camera as he did in the 2008 vampire story Let The Right One In.
He frames every shot with precision, overhearing conversations in darkened hallways or through walls as if we are the spies, gathering evidence about the characters’ wrong-doings.
Control (John Hurt), the chief of a 1970s British Secret Intelligence Service unit known as the Circus, learns that Russian counterpart Karla has placed a mole within the ranks.
To unmask the traitor, Control dispatches Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary but the agent is shot dead.
So Control turns to trusted protégé Smiley (Gary Oldman) and shares intelligence about a possible double agent within the Service.
Soon after Control takes his own life, leaving Smiley to uncover the intrigues of the other Circus members: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) and Bill Haydon (Colin Firth).
Aided by the young, ambitious Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley searches for clues, leading to Circus researcher Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke) and missing operative Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy).
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is intelligent filmmaking of the highest calibre, distinguished by tour de force performances from the predominantly British cast.
Oldman doesn’t utter a word for what seems like an eternity but he commands every frame and will be a front runner for the Best Actor Oscar that has eluded him for too long.
Cumberbatch is a worthy foil, not least in a heart-breaking scene when Peter makes the ultimate sacrifice, having been instructed: “If there’s anything you need tidied up, now’s the time.”
Jones, Hinds, Firth et al are excellent in support and Burke scene-steals with aplomb, delivering the best line of the entire film.
Alfredson’s directorial brio ensures that while our nerves are racked, our eyes are dazzled with visually arresting scenes including the ascent of a stack of top-secret files in a dumb waiter.
Pacing is deliberately slow and some audiences, who have been force-fed thrills at breakneck speed by Hollywood, may lose patience.
That would be a pity because once you surrender to Alfredson’s vision, the knot of tension slowly tightens until we, like Smiley, are desperate to lure the double agent into the open.
STAR RATING: ****