Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a thinking man’s spy flick. If you enjoy a good, intelligent movie that requires your constant attention from start to finish without skipping a beat, you’ll need more than one viewing to completely dissect this one.
The spy thriller genre is one of the most iconic and popular genres in the history of media. Whether it’s cinema or literature, there is always a high demand for tales of espionage, true or not, in whatever form they may be. I, myself, am a big fan of the genre. Hollywood has always given the people a mental image of certain details. Be it drama, action, thriller, buddy comedy and so on. Cinema and literature control our perception of a lot of things. The same can be said for the spy genre.
Which begs the question. What do the people think about spies? How do the people think they are in real life? When the word ‘spy’ comes to mind, most of us see a mental image of a James Bond-esque individual, ladies’ man type, with an array of gadgets and a cool sports car. Maybe a bit more rugged type too, if you’ve seen more spy movies. After all, that’s what the movies have shown us.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy goes against Hollywood’s mainstream portrayal of a spy movie, of a spy organisation.
They don’t get laid all the time. None of them look like Pierce Brosnan or Daniel Craig. They don’t wear tailored tuxedos and don’t drink vodka martinis (shaken, not stirred). They don’t have a Q in The Circus (the name of the agency in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). No exploding pens. They’re ordinary men. Most of them old. Their offices are old and would seem like any regular work space. The spies there would most likely be thought of as bankers or accountants.
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But isn’t that the beauty of it all? Instead of car chases, explosions and saving damsels in distress, they do surveillance work which seems to go on forever, collect information piece by piece. It’s like nothing happens everyday. Hell, even the palette of this movie seems greyish and lifeless. In truth, it’s better than most of the Bond movies combined. It’s, in fact, one of the best spy movies ever.
This world of dull, old men protecting the security of the UK as well as doing the work which most of us perceive as exciting and action-filled, but isn’t, is the world of John le Carre’s legendary spy novels. The Circus is the organisation in focus here.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is based on one of his most famous novels, with his most famous character, George Smiley, portrayed by Gary Oldman.
The book is actually the first of what is known as ‘The Karla Trilogy’. It focuses on George Smiley, the best spy in The Circus, trying to get the better of Karla, a top spy in the KGB.
The year is 1973. The Circus has a problem. A mole. A traitor who’s giving information to other countries. A mission in Budapest goes belly-up and a top operative, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) is killed in the process. Control (John Hurt), longtime head of The Circus, suspects a mole and has a list narrowed down to five people: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), and Smiley, his right hand man.
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Control passes away after being forced to resign, and the Government tasks Smiley to root out the mole. At the time, Smiley wasn’t aware that he himself was listed out as a possible suspect. Nevertheless, he works relentlessly to find out the traitor. In today’s world, where action is the best way to bring in the big bucks, modern spy films always have an element of action in them.
Director Tomas Alfredson decides to do it Carre’s way, and take a more subtle approach. After all, that’s what espionage is (really) about. Entertaining as the Bond movies are, that’s not the way they do things in the real world. Smiley is made aware of the mole in The Circus, possibly planted by his arch-nemesis, Karla. Already a master spy at this point, an ageing man with a wife who cheats on him regularly, Smiley decides to unravel this web of lies and deception to find out just who in the inner circle was the traitor.
A little note on the violence in this movie. There is little to no violence. But whatever little that there is, it’s more realistic and gory than any other spy film.
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John le Carre, a former spy himself, knew how the spy game worked. And the scriptwriters stayed true to the source material. The movie features an ensemble of popular and accomplished British actors. Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones and Ciaran Hinds in one movie.
That’s a British filmmaker’s wet dream.
All of them absolutely fantastic in their own right, but all of those extremely talented individuals combined couldn’t match what Gary Oldman brought to the character of George Smiley. Being a huge fan of John le Carre’s books, the character of Smiley was already fascinating to me. But Oldman perfects the aspects of Smiley from the books, as well as bring something more to the table.
George Smiley is the ultimate spy. A true spy. A real spy. He’s not a lady killer like James Bond. He’s an ordinary looking man with a potbelly whose wife hates his guts. Nobody would even take a second glance at him. But that’s what makes him so dangerous. If you look past that ordinary face and glasses, you’ll see a cunning, ruthless and manipulative brain at work, working tirelessly to achieve his goals. Never judge a book by its cover, the saying goes.
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Oldman brings out that character to absolute perfection. From the poker-face to the icy veneer, Oldman brings out everything that le Carre has illustrated in his books. Beneath that soft exterior is a predator-like nature. And you don’t want to mess with someone like that. The subtle expressions Oldman brings out, as well as his body language speaks volumes about his portrayal of Smiley. By the book. Absolutely perfect.
The way Oldman portrays Smiley is everything against the Bond movies. To make such a stoic character into such an intruiging protagonist, and with the effortlessness of Oldman, is no mean feat. He deserves as much praise and plaudits for this role as he did for his Oscar-winning Winston Churchill.
If you’re not an action kind of person and movies like these easily bore you, this isn’t for you.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a thinking man’s spy flick. This is what spies do. They work in the shadows. They’re most probably the people you’d least expect to be spies.
If you enjoy a good, intelligent movie that requires your constant attention from start to finish without skipping a beat, then you’ll need more than one viewing to completely dissect this one. And then you’ll watch it a million times more because it’s so fricking good. This is one of the greatest spy movies of all time.
By Aditya Sarma
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I'm an engineering graduate trying to make the most out of what life throws at me. Currently working as a Brand Strategist at Mitsogo Inc, Chennai. Outside work, you can find me on a football pitch, a basketball court, or in front of a tea stall - still trying to make the most out of what I get.