“Trust no one,” says John Hurt, in fine fettle here as British spymaster Control, in the early stages of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. In the case of the talent behind this top-class adaptation, they’re words not to be heeded. Attempting to rival the BBC’s superior 1979 serialisation of John Le Carre’s espionage classic – about the hunt for a Soviet mole in the British secret service (‘The Circus’, as Le Carre dubs it) – with a two-hour movie that couldn’t possibly bring the same depth or subtlety may have seemed a foolhardy proposition to many, but the talent wrangled for the mission is magnificently trustworthy.
Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, hot off the impressive child-vampire thriller Let The Right One In, makes an ideal candidate to handle Tinker’s chilly, melancholic intrigue and serve up a dispassionate portrait of miserable, paranoid spies. Gary Oldman too is an actor with the finely calibrated talent to wipe memories of Alec Guinness’ iconic performance as George Smiley, the nondescript intelligence analyst whose sad, drab exterior masks a fluent, animated intellect. Pile on a helping of stellar British thesps with career heat to burn (Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciaran Hinds, Mark Strong and Toby Jones) and this makes for compelling adult entertainment.
Alfredson’s approach to Le Carre’s tale is diligent, honourable, astute, a carefully executed whodunit that captures the stark drabness of early ‘70s Cold War Britain (the hair, suits and skin pallor all marvellously dreary), contains a clutch of nail-biting sequences and features a razor-sharp turn from Oldman as the doleful spy brought in from the cold to unmask whichever one of his former colleagues is leaking secrets to the Russians. Besides Oldman, it’s Hardy who makes the biggest impression, bringing a touch of humanity to this barrel of cold public-school fish as Ricky Tarr, the anxious working-class operative with vital information. Cumberbatch, too, has great fun as Smiley’s trusted inside man.
There’s no doubt Alfredson could have used more running time simply to give a proper airing to all four potential traitors – Tinker (Jones), Tailor (Firth), Soldier (Hinds) and Poor Man (David Dencik) – and thus keep the audience guessing a while longer. Fans of the genre will finger the culprit early and without that added layer of suspicion, the big reveal is left feeling perfunctory, almost blasé. Minus that last cathartic gasp, Tinker Tailor Solder Spy settles for being a very good as opposed to a superb spy thriller.