The surreptitious world of international espionage has time and again been a great source for thrilling spy stories both literary and cinematic. While authors such as Len Deighton, Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum created some of the most memorable characters of the genre, it was directors like Alfred Hitchcock, whose repeated use of this style of storytelling in classic movies like The 39 Steps(1935), The Man Who Knew Too Much(1956) and North By Northwest (1959), who helped to popularize these kinds of films with cinema audiences. Whereas early examples of this genre concentrated on the clandestine nature of espionage, the arrival of the James Bond films added elements of fantasy and glamour. This popular series soon came to be the definition of spy movies. However, with the focus of these films being the girls, gadgets and action set-pieces, they soon became less associated with real espionage thrillers and more with escapist action cinema. Over the years though, the Bond films became tired, formulaic and as a result repetitious. This has since led to the Jason Bourne films, which yet again redefined the nature of spy movies and concentrated on developing the central character, while also mixing action with a strong storyline of a covert agent gone rogue.
One of the latest additions to the espionage movie stable is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, an adaptation of the 1974 novel of the same name by John le Carré. Set in the early 70s in the midst of the cold war, the plot sees British agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) dispatched to Budapest to gain information from a Hungarian General. Whilst there, the operation goes awry and Prideaux gets shot in the back by the Hungarian Intelligence as he tries to escape. The fallout from this international incident forces the head of British Intelligence, Control (John Hurt) and his deputy, George Smiley(Gary Oldman) into retirement. Shortly afterwards Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), the civil servant in charge of Intelligence, brings Smiley out of retirement. Lacon informs Smiley that he suspects there is a mole in the upper echelons of British Intelligence, a suspicion that control also had. Smiley is then tasked with the investigation to identify the mole, who may very well be one of the five men he worked closest with.
The first point I need to make about this movie is that with its lack of car chases and explosions, it is very definitely targeted at a fragmented audience; it certainly isn’t your usual popcorn fare and anybody who watches it with expectations of something similar to Bond or Bourne will be severely disappointed. With that said, I absolutely loved the film and there was not a single fault I could find with it. Director Thomas Alfredson has stayed faithful to the source material he has utilized and crafted a masterpiece of a film. Unlike the more action orientated spy movies that have become commonplace, this is a much more steadily paced, realistic and subdued affair. The tangled web of intrigue is the driving force for the narrative, in much the same way as the Hitchcock espionage thrillers. The overall structure takes the form of a whodunnit, which draws you in and, like Smiley, you find yourself scrutinizing each character and questioning their motives. Such is th level of mystery around who the mole really is, I even found myself suspecting Smiley at one point.
What really helps to raise he bar for the film is the overall level of authenticity. The look and tone of the piece seem so genuine that if you didn’t know better you’d be forgiven for thinking that it actually was made in the 1970s. The acting is outstanding, with not one member of the fantastic cast giving a weak performance while Oldman excels in the lead role of Smiley, expressing every nuance of the aging intelligence officer’s character. The cloak and dagger plot is excellent and completeley watertight, while Alberto Iglesis’ musical score captures the mood perfectly and serves only to accentuate the paranoia of the era.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a rock-solid addition to the espionage thriller genre: if I had to compare it to any other recent picture of a similar ilk then Steven Spielberg’s Munich would be the only film that comes close to its tone and quality. Its detailed, twisting plot, realistic setting and bleak tone will satisfy any moviegoer who hungers for a more substantial cinematic morsel. It is a veritable three-course meal when compared to the fast-food cheap thrills offered by most contemporary spy films and while it may be too rich for the palate of a more mainstream audience, it offers those with more discerning tastes something they can really get their teeth into.