Tomas Alfredson

Cambridge Film Festival Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

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The Pitch: Dobby, King George VI, Dumbledore’s brother, Jim Gordon. The Elephant Man and Sherlock can barely get a look in…

The Review: Ten years ago, Gary Oldman was a different man. One of the best actors of his generation, but famed for disappearing into his roles and for not making easy choices, he had a certain familiarity to popcorn audiences for the likes of Leon and The Fifth Element, but may not have been a household name. Big roles in the Harry Potter and Batman franchises have sorted that out, but he’s always been able to retain the varied qualities that helped him to stand out in his less familiar roles. But it’s those qualities that undoubtedly caused the producers at Working Title to conclude a six month search by landing on his name, and also realising that they couldn’t make the film without him. The most successful remakes are able to  make you forget that there was ever a previous incarnation, and Alec Guinness’ boots are some big ones to hide.

The Seventies Smiley story was rightly lauded for the strong cast and the faithfulness of its adaptation, so once the challenge of finding a lead has been overcome the next is to find a way of condensing the material that fed a six hour TV series into a reasonable length. The first surprise is that Tomas Alfredson and his editor have somehow condensed this into two hours; the second is the leisurely pace at which the film seems to start, almost as if it’s not concerned with getting through the material in the prescribed running time. But it’s actually more measured than leisurely, the tone able to shift seamlessly and deliver drama and tension from even the most underplayed scenes.

Having one of the best casts in, frankly, ever also manages to keep your attention through every twist and turn of the plot. There’s a lot of names on the poster, but everyone steps up and delivers top-notch performances. Worthy of particular mention are those outside the Circus’ top tier, and Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch continue what should be upward trends in their career paths. Mark Strong, Toby Jones, John Hurt and Colin Firth also don’t disappoint, and the likes of Stephen Graham and Kathy Burke also shine enough in smaller roles that they should probably be disappointed not to get their names on the poster. Oldman, of course, glides through the middle of it all, giving a masterfully subtle performance that deserves attention when awards start to be handed out.

The actors having set the bar, pretty much every other department steps up to meet it. From the costume and production design to the photography and editing, quality oozes out of every frame, and Alfredson succeeds in glueing your eyes to the screen  for every second, and manages to throw in as many indelible images as he did in his stellar vampire effort, Let The Right One In. There’s a surprising sprinkling of humour and a definite helping of passion thrown into the mix, which help to leaven the more serious and studious moments. The music is also well worth a mention, regular Almodovar composer Alberto Iglesias turning in a score which evokes just the right mood and has enough echoes of previous spy scores without feeling too referential or reverential, and the use of music itself not only drives key plot points but also adds dramatic weight to key scenes, especially near the climax.

Ultimately, your overall enjoyment of Tinker… will depend on how much you feel you’re actually following the plot. There are two potentially deciding factors in this: one is the use of flashback to expand on the inital set-up, and while the subtitles are happy to draw the distinction between Russian and Hungarian, for example, the point in the time line of the film isn’t always as obvious. However, the fate of two key characters is laid out early on, and using them as a compass point should allow you to easily work out where the plot’s up to. The other is the use of the characters’ emotions to imply their motivations – sideways glances and background detail are often preferred to dialogue, and this feels more natural but does demand your full and undivided attention for the entire running time. If you’re paying close attention to those emotional beats, the final reveal shouldn’t come as a surprise, even if you haven’t read the book or seen previous adaptations. If you can keep these two things in mind, then this is an outstanding piece of cinema which should leave you needing a second viewing almost immediately.

Why see it at the cinema: The production design and cinematography are as outstanding as everything else, and the close up view and attention to detail demand you see this in a cinema. Also, the post-screening mumbling as you exit will allow you to determine how many people actually followed it.

The Score: 10/10