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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

DIRECTOR: Tomas Alfredson

CAST: Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Stephen Graham, Tom Hardy, Ciaran Hinds, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Kathy Burke, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Simon McBurney

RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes

RATING: ****

An excellent ensemble cast meets tight directing to make a tense, moody thriller of John le Carre’s best-selling novel.

Set in 1973, this is the classic Cold War spy story and director Tomas Alfredson (he of the haunting Låt Den Rätte Komma In – Let the Right One In) has made a period piece that is still a contemporary bit of film-making.

The film is sprawling and spans continents, taking the form of a hunt for a mole in Britain’s Secret Service. Codenamed The Circus, MI6 is struggling to keep apace with other world powers’ much better-equipped and funded spy organisations.

Couched as a whodunnit, the film becomes more than just the physical hunt, growing into an incisive commentary on the ethical ambiguity of spying, especially the way the Brits do it.

The maze of loyalties and betrayals is positively medieval and compounded by the “oh, it’s how it’s always been done” feeling.

At the heart of the hunt is George Smiley (Oldman), a thinker from the old school who is re-engaged to hunt for the mole through a labyrinth of misinformation. He may look like a boring accountant, but this disillusioned spy has history and a back story.

Just enough of the Oldman menace (he will always be the cop screaming: “I mean everyone,” in The Professional) is hinted at to create a man who may now wear thick glasses and a three-piece suit but used to be the one who went out and did the dirty work.

Smiley is aided by bright young thing Peter Guillaume (Cumberbatch) and there is a serious amount of slogging around and paperwork that takes place. This is probably closer to real-life spying than any Mission Impossible film, but when the proverbial hits the fan, things do get nasty.

Alberto Iglesius’s soundtrack is brooding, creating tension in the counter-melodies and all within a perfect 1970s sensibility. While he uses jazz instruments like the trumpet and oboe with varying tempos, sometimes within single melodies, the score is, like the film, character-driven and more Continental than Hollywood.

A veritable who’s who of British thesps pop up all over the place to create intriguing characters of varying moral degree.

The storyline itself spirals back and forth in time, with Smiley returning to the memory of an earlier, seemingly more innocent time, a Christmas party which gains sinister overtones as we learn more and more about contemporary treachery based on earlier deceit. The past is not simple and old secrets create problems in the present.

Alfredson uses images of mazes and puzzles in unexpected places like the rabbit warren of doorways and filing cabinets that is the MI6 offices or railway tracks to reinforce this mess of loyalties, betrayals and power structures.

The film unfolds at its own snail’s pace and there’s a lot of expounding and very careful enunciation, so it is not for adrenaline junkies weaned on Bourne and Bond. But, it is for anyone who loves puzzles and complicated storylines. It requires a focused patience but, ultimately, rewards with a chilling warning that spying may look good on paper, but it’s no good for the soul.

If you liked… The Day of the Jackal, Three Days of the Condor or The French Connection… you will like this.