In recent years the spy genre has seen resurgence, restyled either as sophisticated postmodern thrillers (the Bourne and James Bond franchises, Spooks) or comedies (Johnny English and the Sky1 TV sitcom Spy). It is a testament to the strength of the genre that it is as diversely adaptable to the telling of different stories as the seemingly limitless horror and detective genres; and there is clearly an enduring appeal to the mysterious spy figure. With Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tomas Alfredson chooses to explore his loneliness and vulnerability, in a film which is as much about gender and performance as it is about violence and intrigue.
After a mission goes disastrously awry in Hungary, ageing spymaster Control (John Hurt) is forced out of British Intelligence (known as ‘The Circus’) taking taciturn George Smiley (Gary Oldman) with him. However, a rumour of a double agent in the highest ranks of the Circus persists. Smiley, old beyond his years, and suffering from the latest in a long line of betrayals by his faithless wife Ann, is dragged back into the fray to investigate his former colleagues. The list of possible traitors are the cream of British acting talent; Toby Jones is wonderfully poisonous as Control’s replacement, and Colin Firth, who is growing comfortably into his role as one of the finest actors in the country, sparkles as the sybaritic Bill Haydon.
Although it was an acclaimed exercise in challenging television in the 1980s, this is the first attempt to translate the complicated 1974 novel into two hours of film. Some movie-goers have struggled with the complexities of the plot, but in terms of adapting the heart of a novel to screen it is a master class. Choosing to focus on the novel’s theme of masculinity and gender, the film presents a study in the destructive potential of hyper-masculine performance. The men live independent, secretive lives and an emotionally buttoned-up appearance is essential for survival, but loneliness and self-repression is destroying them from within. One by one the men are broken down, the pose of self-control leaking at the seams. Tears mingle with rain in a film soaked with uncontainable emotion – like Smiley himself, the film is quietly angry with the futility of meaningless ideology and the battle against the self. By making one of the book’s conspicuously heterosexual characters into a closeted gay man, the film cleverly uses living a lie as a metaphor for living a lie.
It is the look of the film which is most striking – there is an iconic anti-glamour in Smiley’s mackintosh and oversized glasses. The hyperreal bleakness of a comic-book 1970s overpowers everything, and all the action is conducted in grim, smoke filled rooms. Everything, and everyone, is slightly knackered – hungover from a golden age and a ‘real’ war. Yet Smiley is empowered by his invisibility, and parallels are drawn between himself and an outcast young school boy in the film’s melancholy boarding school subplot – Smiley goes similarly unnoticed in the world but this earns him and his schoolboy counterpart a greater perception of the world. Oldman’s subtle performance fills the screen, every nuanced little movement radiating a personal anguish like watching him through a magnifying glass. He is on a journey to find his voice, and his anger.
Twisting the James Bond template into a study in human frailty, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a fitting but never overly sentimental elegy to the rigid constructions of masculinity and femininity in a pre-modern world. Most of all it reminds us how much our relationships with ourselves have changed in 40 years. Although for many characters a happy ending is impossible, this promise for the future gives an unexpected optimism to the film’s final scenes.