Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – Film Review

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

On November 18, 2011 I did a Q and A with the director, the writer and the star of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, following the preview screening of the film. I was joined by Tomas Alfredson (director), Peter Straughan (co-writer), and Gary Oldman (George Smiley).  Until last minute travel complications intervened the group was also going to include Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones and Mark Strong. Although the Q and A was a private event for members of The National Board of Review I can say that despite the diminished size of the party the discussion was lively and I came away with a deep appreciation of the talents of the three men.

Review at National Board of Review web site

Originally posted on December 9, 2011

Thomas W. Campbell

“The story is a simple one. A king is toppled from his thrown and the rightful heir is cast into the wilderness. The heir struggles to find out what happened, and after a battle finally returns to take his rightful place on the thrown.”

– Peter Straughan, co-writer of the film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

John le Carré’s spy novels, many which feature George Smiley as the central character, have been best sellers since he left the British Foreign Intelligence in the early 1960’s. Recreating his own persona for confidentiality reasons, David Cornwell became John le Carré and began to publish a string of complex and memorable espionage novels, many which have been adapted to television and theater. The first screen adaptation, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, starred Richard Burton and was directed by Martin Ritt in 1965. The first incarnation of George Smiley appeared the following year, in Call for the Dead, directed by Sydney Lumet and starring James Mason. Other notable film screen versions include The Tailor of Panama (2001, directed by John Boorman and starring Pierce Brosnan) and The Constant Gardner (2005, directed by Fernando Meirelles and starring Ralph Fiennes). Tinker, Tailor was adapted as a British television series in 1979, pairing Sir Alec Guinness with the Smiley role. The first in a trilogy of novels that pit Smiley against a brilliant Russian cold-war nemesis named Karla, the second book (Smiley’s People) was produced, again with Guinness, but the third, The Honorable Schoolboy, never made it to the screen.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, directed by Tomas Alfredson and starring Gary Oldman as the master spy George Smiley, has been vetted by le Carré, who met frequently with the writers and director, and has an executive producer’s credit. He basically told them to make their own film – the series and the book have a life of their own – and that’s what Alfredson and his team has done. Tinker, Tailor is a stylish, intelligent and challenging film that does the spy genre justice – it dispenses with the pummeling violence of conventional espionage/action genre stories – each trying to out-Bond the Bonds and out-Bourne the Bournes – and serves up nuanced acting, crafty plot construction and sumptuous visual style that is both gritty and elegant.

The screenplay, written by the husband and wife team of Bridget O’Connor (Sixty Six) and Peter Straughan (The Debt, Men Who Stare At Goats), distills the 432 page book into a tight and engaging two hours. (The film is dedicated to Ms. O’Connor, who passed away in the fall of 2010). The nine main characters engage in a game of deception that tests the limits of loyalty – to country, to the concepts of good and bad, and to friendship on the most personal levels. Meanwhile the film portrays, in the most believable and stylish of ways, the lifestyles of the British Secret Service circa 1972.

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