Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (UK/France/Germany 2011)

Mark Strong as a British agent sent to Budapest

I was eager to see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (the lack of commas appears deliberate) simply because of my admiration for Tomas Alfredson’s previous film Let the Right One In. I wasn’t disappointed in his direction. I enjoyed the film very much and I think it is one of the best designed films (by Maria Djurkovic who has a long line of credits in UK film and television) I have seen in a long time. If I’m not overly excited by its success, it is simply because it is an adaptation that follows the earlier lengthy TV series from 1979 rather than being something new. Still, there are several interesting aspects to the production and to this release.

The first is that despite the (middle-class and public school) Englishness of the property, this is very much a European film. It marks the first official release for the re-branded StudioCanal – a French company which has autonomous British and German subsidiaries that are both involved in this production, alongside StudioCanal’s long-time UK partner, Working Title. The film shot in Budapest and Istanbul as well as London. It was directed by a Swede, photographed by a Swiss-Dutchman (Hoyte Van Hoytema), edited by a Sweded  and much of the effects work and design work was carried out in Sweden. The excellent music is by the Spanish composer Alberto Iglesias.  (There is some excellent use of songs in the film with George Formby’s Mr Wu and a great rendition of Charles Trenier’s ‘La mer’ by Julio Iglesias.)

The acting is, as expected, exemplary and I’ll leave it to others to work out whether Gary Oldman achieves as much or more – or less than Alec Guinness in his portrayal of George Smiley. Otherwise it is splendid ensemble work all round.

I’ve enjoyed some Le Carré’s later novels but I haven’t read the Smiley titles. I’m a little concerned that the success of this film will start off a series of further adaptations, possibly with Alfredson attached. Not that he wouldn’t do a good job, but I’d like to see him try something else. For the moment though, Alfredson’s spy story stands up well against two other sober spy dramas, Sidney J. Furie’s Len Deighton adaptation The Ipcress File (UK 1965) and my admittedly hazy memories of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (UK 1965). The latter directed by Martin Ritt was another Le Carré adaptation with (I see now) George Smiley as a minor character played by one-time Maigret star Rupert Davies. Richard Burton was in the lead. Perhaps because I saw this as a teenager not that many years after the Berlin Wall went up, it made much more of an impression on me. Tinker Tailor now appears as more of a good yarn than a commentary on the times.

Interesting official website.


  1. des1967

    I saw it last night with a small audience though it was the 6.15 showing. I agree that the mise en scene (although early in the film, inside the Circus, I’m sure I saw one of the operatives in the depth of the frame wearing red hotpants – unlikely in any government office in those days), cinematography and acting were first class. Comparisons with the the original TV adaptation are inevitable and it raises interesting questions about how a feature film works in comparison to a long-form TV serial. Like you, it’s many years since I saw the BBC version (which I recall seeing in an all-omnibus during the Christmas holidays) but I remember the overall atmosphere rather than the plot. There is much to be said for the long-form adaptation in terms of the slow build-up of tension and the more detailed characterisation it affords. I felt the dénouement a bit rushed in the film. The performance of Guinness allowed for more pathos in Smiley and we get to see his wife, Ann (rather than the brief glimpse of her back we see in the film) which affects how we see Smiley. The music was excellent but I struggled to see the point of La Mer at the end (and I would have preferred Trénet’s – not Trenier’s) original to Iglesias’s version).

    I’ve read that Gary Oldman is up for doing Smiley’s people provided the director agrees to continue.


    • Roy Stafford

      Sorry about the Trenét slip-up — too late at night! I presume that Iglesias chose that version of the song, though as far as I know there is no direct connection between Alberto and Julio Iglesias? I assumed that it just fits the atmosphere of a Christmas party in this peculiar workplace – where everyone is likely to relate to/know aspects of European culture.

      No, I haven’t seen the Guinness TV series but generally I agree that there are benefits in the slow build-up of long format television.

      Yes, that’s what I’d heard about Oldman, but I hope that Alfredson doesn’t agree. TTSS is fine but Let the Right One In is great filmmaking I think and now that Alfredson has demonstrated that he can make a ‘studio picture’ – which I think StudioCanal is now making – I hope he can get the chance to do other things. (I’ve just read another novel by the author of LTROI which was equally interesting. It’s called Tjärven (Harbour) and is similar in tone.)


  2. Rona

    I think the choice of La Mer at the end is actually a moot point, because it is so obviously used to make a statement – being boomed out in an otherwise brilliantly sublimated soundtrack. It appears crass and ‘tacked on’ to me (I found myself even thinking of the ending of Altman’s The Player). Smiley has won in a way that totally refutes the narrative tone of the film throughout. It’s unreal and unrealistic – it’s not how these lives are actually led, and it’s momentary. Here you are – here’s your ‘happy ending’ (if you’re fool enough to believe it?) I think Roy’s point regarding the irrelevance is also important. It’s entirely irrelevant and entirely recognisable (to British audiences of that era – which says something about Alfredson adn Hoyte Van Hoytema (DOP)’s ability with an outsider viewpoint). It’s imbued with a certain 1970s form of cynicism, which makes it distinctly ‘not contemporary’ – but which it could have aspired to be. They have somehow, for me, made a 1970s I totally recognise – photographically and viscerally – and then emphasised its political distance. That’s an odd feeling – when we know ‘we’ are fighting other wars, elsewhere.

    The acting was a distraction from all this – they were brilliant. The relationships were implied and developed with minimalistic techniques all round – completely gripping. I watched the whole television series faithfully (as a superficial youth!) – and felt disappointed (then) by the ending after such a long time – that’s the sledgehammer beauty of films!


  3. keith1942

    Yes, fairly impressive. The film catches the paranoia and the male bonding: also the symbiotic relationship with Moscow Centre. The ending is a slight let down.
    Some of the chnages work well, I think the use of the Xmas party is very good. The more action type scenes, like Toby’s griling at the airfield,less so.
    There are also some oddities: if you know the original, Jery Westerby replaces Sam Colins, and it is not clear why.
    Still, pretty good Le Carre.


  4. Des1967

    reviews have commented on the pace of the film and how that might be difficult for a modern audience. Since the comments above, I’ve seen a couple of episodes, not of TTSS but of Smiley’s People (with the same cast and production team) and it makes the recent film seem like the Bourne films in comparison. Were TV audiences (at least BBC2 audiences) so much more patient then?


    • Roy Stafford

      I think that there are several issues here. One is that (I think) many UK TV series were not made on film in the late 1970s, so immediately editing is a different process with different conventions for video drama. Secondly, editing in cinema feature production has got ‘faster’ over time if you follow the debates around ASL (Average Shot Length) based on the work of Barry Salt et al. But I guess just as important is the willingness of audiences to become involved/immersed in the text. If you are gripped by the narrative, the pace always seems quicker?


    • des1967

      I haven’t been able to find out if it was shot on film or video. I would have thought that by around 1980 some of the more prestigious TV drama productions would have been shot on film. I’ll wait until I’ve seen the whole serial before I come to a definitive conclusion.

      I doubt if my reaction is a subjective one based on degree of involvement in the text. Actually, some of my favourite films (including some by Jacques Demy) have ASLs of over 20 seconds. On the other hand, being bombarded by films with ASL of less than 2 seconds (eg Tony Scott; the Bourne films) might well have corrupted my palate! Perhaps the pace will increase as we get into the story – but I’ve no intention of using the piece of software on Salt’s Cinemetrics website to test my hypothesis – life’s too short!


      • Roy Stafford

        Smiley’s People was 1982 according to IMdb, which lists the originating format as 35mm. But for Tinker, Tailor in 1979, the format is not given. Without doing the research, all I can remember is that Loach in the 1960s was one of the first to push for 16mm (black and white) for his television plays. There was then a period (which I can’t date without doing the research) when some BBC directors agitated to use 35mm (colour) for plays/’films’ but often couldn’t justify the expense. Later of course (1990s?), everything tended to be shot on Super 16mm for TV, especially when 16:9 presentation was a driver.

        I did say ‘narrative‘ in terms of immersion. I quite accept that in more discursive films (which I love as well) you could be enjoying the film because the pacing was slow. Aso ‘pacing’ is not just about editing – it depends what’s going on within the shot.


  5. des1967

    Absolutely. In the films I referred to with ASL of 20 seconds+, there is constant movement within the shot – tracking, panning, reframing; something I haven’t found so far in Smiley.


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