A Comparatively Dull World

in 22nd Stockholm Film Festival

by Beat Glur

In the midst of the European financial disaster the context of the film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy seems somewhat outdated. But it’s only a mere 40 years ago that Europe was in the middle of the so-called Cold War. It was most of all a war between governments — of their secret services, to be precise.

James Bond, in the service of her Majesty the Queen, saved the world from communism several times, always perfectly dressed, fighting the bad guys, driving fast cars, and sleeping with the (female) enemy for the good of his country.

The world in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is comparatively dull, a lot more complex, but much more realistic, so quite the opposite from 007’s luxury surroundings. There is no action, there is no glamour, and there are (almost) no women. The headquarters of the British Intelligence, known as the Circus, are situated in a concrete building; grey is the dominating colour inside, cloudy the weather outside.

The look of the film is a bit reminiscent of the era of black-and-white television. It’s a world with no computers and no mobile phones. And it’s a world of grey suits, grey hair, and no private life. The visuals of the film are superb, especially the ugly and boring-looking interior settings. It leaves no doubt: the times of the Cold War were cold, unemotional, and lacking in human feeling.

There is a little action in the beginning of the film, when in the early 1970’s a British agent is shot down in Budapest while on a mission. He was to meet a Soviet General who was said to have information about a mole, an undercover agent in British intelligence. The search for that mole then keeps the film going.

After the failed Budapest operation, Control (John Hurt), the head of MI6, the British secret service, is forced to retire. With him, George Smiley (Gary Oldman) steps down, but is shortly afterwards asked back to the service to investigate whether there really is a mole in the system.

We learn that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and Spy are the codenames of four suspects, whose faces Smiley cuts out and tapes to chessmen. As the story develops he becomes more and more convinced that someone in the service is in fact a Russian agent. But who? One of them? All four of them?

There is quite a cast in the film, mostly men, and mostly British. Colin Firth, Tom Hardy and Mark Strong are among the prominent actors. They are all in secondary roles, but none of them one easily forgets. Precise characterisations help to distinguish between what are stunning performances across the board.

The main character is espionage veteran Smiley, cold-bloodedly and almost emotionlessly performed by Gary Oldman, who has played such eccentric real life figures as Sid Vicious from the Sex Pistols in Sid & Nancy in 1986, Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK in 1991 and Beethoven in Ludwig van B. in 1994. Oldman would greatly merit his first-ever Oscar nomination for his role in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

The film is an adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 novel of the same title. Of all of his books brought to screen Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is likely to be the best adaptation, thanks to its faithfulness to the text, which should fully meet the expectations of the writer’s fans. The film takes just over two hours to tell the complex 400-page story. The BBC seven-part mini-series from 1979, which starred Alec Guinness as Smiley, needed seven episodes of 45 minutes for the same plot.

It was not an obvious choice for the producers to take up a Swedish director for this so very British material. For Tomas Alfredson, best known for his 2008 teen-vampire story Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in), it’s his first English-language film. And it was the ideal opener of the Stockholm Film Festival this fall, since Alfredson lives in Stockholm.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September, is a truly European film, with Hungarians speaking Hungarian, Russians speaking Russian and Turks speaking Turkish. It was shot on location in Budapest, Istanbul and London.