Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has undergone a bit of a transformation over the years. When an adaptation appeared on the small screen back in 1979, it was a mere five years after the publication of John le Carré’s novel. In other words, when I sat down to watch the TV series in 1979 (a little mystified because I was rather small and had barely come to terms with the environmental message behind the Wombles), the Cold War was getting cooler by the day and spies were all the rage, along with Angel Delight. Leap forward 30 odd years to a new adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – no longer contemporary but now a period cloak and dagger piece.
There are characteristics that are common to both Tinker, Tailors, and chief among those is the superb casting and acting. Alex Guinness, Michael Jayston, George Sewell, Ian Richardson and Hywel Bennet all gave memorable performances back in 1979 and it is very possible that we will also remember for years to come the glittering array of British talent in today’s cinema adaptation – Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Ciaran Hinds, Benedict Cumperpatch, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth etc. This list demands that we cry ‘What a cast!’ and so it’s hardly surprising to discover that the film is impeccably acted and, from that angle alone, is a treat to watch.
Swedish director Tom Alfredson (Let The Right One In) gives his cast the reins. It reminds me of Ang Lee’s direction of Sense and Sensibility or Kazuo Ishiguro’s writing of The Remains of the Day – the outsider or the observer renders perfectly English life with all its peculiarities and quirks. Although with a cast such as the one that Alfredson enjoys here, it’s hard to see how he could have failed.
I’m not even going to attempt to describe the plot beyond the absolute basics. Two spies return to England, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) who was shot in the back during a mission in Czechoslovakia, and Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) who has fallen in love with the wife of a Russian spy. Through her, Tarr has discovered that a mole in the British Secret Service may have been responsible for the betrayal of Prideux. Smiley (Oldman), with helper Peter Guillam (Cumberpatch) is given the task of uncovering the identity of the mole among the ‘Circus’. Each of the candidates has his own codename, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and so on. Rather intriguingly, Smiley himself is in the list. He is Beggarman.
To describe any more of the plot might suggest that I understood more of it than I actually did. The hallmark of a good spy story should be that at least 40% of it is unintelligible. This shouldn’t matter because the inscrutability of the plot will be matched by the tension of the drama and the increasing desperation of the principal characters.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) does satisfy, principally for me, because it is such a masterclass of some of the finest (male) acting in Britain today. It is a touch on the chilly side but then that is an aspect of Cold War spy dramas. It’s never easy to warm to characters that, by default, you are not allowed to see fully. However, this 2011 version is a historical piece – the clothing, the cars, the little details (including a view of St Paul’s that no longer exists) are impeccable and admirable. David Fincher would have been proud. But when the novel was written and when the TV series was screened we were in a world where this wasn’t history, drama dressed up in unusual and curious clothes, such things were actually going on. This was Spooks!
And so, the two adaptations of the novels are very different beasts. However, with the 2011 version, I find myself that little bit more removed from the heart of the story and, as such, less involved with the characters or the situations despite being fascinated by the historical accuracies. It reminds me a little of the BBC drama Threads back in the early 1980s. This dramatisation of nuclear war was horrifying at the time. We were being taught at school about nuclear shelters. TV community announcements lectured us on keeping tinned foods ready. Watching it now, it has new value as a period piece. That doesn’t make it any less clever but it does mean it doesn’t scare me half to death now or give me nightmares, which the original did (by the bucket load).
Similarly, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a fine piece of film making but for me it has changed its genre, from spy thriller to historical drama. Nothing wrong with that but it does make me watch it with different eyes.