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Written by: Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, based on the novel by John le Carre

Directed by: Tomas Alfredson

Starring: Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, David Dencik

Exposition of plot can be tricky business. Explain too much and you risk spoiling some of the fun as is the case, for example, in a film like Inception (2009), but leave too much unsaid and your film will be a closed book.  Disappointingly, Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy falls firmly, perhaps emphatically, into the ranks of the latter. It is not just a closed book but it is a closed and very Top Secret dossier inside a locked briefcase on a table behind the shut and locked door of the soundproofed room that sits in the heart of a heavily guarded MI6 building. It’s a twitchy and admirably realistic espionage thriller that is so twisted around its own murky intricacies, it’s unknowable.

But first I want to discuss the strengths of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and they are many. As an espionage thriller, its refreshingly static; there are no explosions, car chases, sweeping set-pieces, steamy sex scenes or exotic locations. There are only, if my memory serves, three gunshots. Knowingly, the film portrays the world of espionage much more closely, I suspect, to the real thing, which is to say it mostly involves tattered old men smoking heavily as they pour over documents and hold tense meetings. Tomas Alfredson, who directed the great Let The Right One In (2009), directs Tinker Tailor with astonishing flair. A pallate of muted blues and yellows and browns and greys not only sets the time and place of early-70s England, but they also help reinforce the banality of the life of a real spy. Each shot is meticulously composed to build atmosphere with record efficiency, so that Alfredson is able to move between events as quickly as possible. Most scenes seem to clock in at less than 30 seconds and as such the film is constantly on the move, creating a terriffic sensation of unease and restlessness in the viewer. A brilliant, evocative score works so perfectly with Alfredson’s precise images to create a really exciting-feeling film. Unusually powerful performances spring from an excellent ensemble cast including Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Tom Hardy and Toby Jones. It’s great to see a turn here from Benedict Cumberbatch, playing here a character who is about the exact opposite of the famous detective Cumberbatch plays in the BBC’s brilliant Sherlock. Gary Oldman as George Smiley gives a performance so subtle and perceptive that it stands as the strongest work I’ve possibly ever seen from him. Great stuffy, ultra-British dialogue full of “Good Lord, old man!” and “I don’t bloody-well know, do I?” is so strong, and so charming that it distracted me from the fact that I had no idea what the bloody hell was going on.

And here is where I discuss the problems with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The adaptation of a novel is difficult; it is impossible to please fans and non-fans at the same time. I understand  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to be the first of a trilogy and that most of the characters exist in many of John le Carre’s novels, so I’m sure that had I read these novels I’d have a fantastic grip on the plot. I’m sure that fans of le Carre’s books will find this a great adaptation. The problem with fans of an adapted book is that they tend to look at how the film relates to the book, and not at how it works as a film. If a film requires much prior knowledge at all, it doesn’t work. If a film requires knowledge of one man’s life work, then it’s D.O.A. I accept that part of Tinker Tailor‘s charm is its realism, and I accept that much of the point is that information is only recieved and exposed in snippets. It doesn’t help that this half-formed information is divulged at an incredible pace, and in half-heard whispers full of SIS-jargon and coded murmers. Heaped on top of this is the fact that there are so many characters, spoken of at times by the codenames but other times not, and several of whom show up without much of an introduction to tell of secret missions and unclear goings-on involving other unknown characters and their top secret missions and unclear goings on. It’s enhausting and confusing and it requires such effort to even barely keep up with the who’s-who and the what’s-what that so much gets lost. Frequent flashbacks are so similar to the rest of the film I didn’t even know they were flashbacks; they mostly take place at a Christmas party but there was no reason to think that the rest of the film wasn’t happening around Christmas time. And what the hell is the purpose of a subplot involving one of the spies pretending to be a teacher and forming a bond with an outcast little boy? When the film was over I had to read a plot synopsis (which I could still barely follow) and I found out that a character had died in the film and I never knew it happened. Generally speaking I think I’m pretty good at following even the most opaque films, but when the death of a major character goes unnoticed it’s either me or the script that needs help.