This new re-working of John Le Carré’s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (TTSS) is a strong contender for one of the most unglamorous spy films ever made.
Set in the Cold War during the 1970s and swathed in varying shades of browns and greys, it is as far away from a Bond-esque thriller you might expect.
But its lack of glamour certainly doesn’t equal a lack of excitement, in what proves to be a sublime, fascinating and multi-layered production.
It certainly has a lot to live up to, from Le Carré’s lengthy novel about retired MI6 George Smiley’s quiet campaign to uncover a mole ‘at the heart of the Circus’ to the classic 1979 BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness.
Smiley (Gary Oldman) is called out of semi-retirement by his old boss Control (John Hurt). With one of their agents Mark Prideaux (Mark Strong) shot and captured during a mission to Hungary, it seems ‘a rotten apple’ within the organisation is working for the Soviets.
Could it be Tinker Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Tailor Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Soldier Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), Poor Man Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) or the Spy – old Smiley himself?
Two men are called in to help George in his quest – young spy Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) – his man in Istanbul who thinks he may be able to extract vital information from his new lover and Soviet trade delegate Irina (Svetlana Khochenkova).
Irina is one of the few women in what is largely a man’s world. The other is Kathy Burke who makes a long-awaited return to film as former head of personnel Connie Sachs who steals the show with just five minutes of screen time.
Told in a series of interwoven flashbacks, TTSS is both demanding and rewarding to watch.
The story is told in slow-burning and brooding way, but a lot of it is pared down to fit the 2hrs 7mins run time – creating a much pacier turn of events.
At times you will really need your wits about you to disentangle the various plot threads, and prior knowledge of the book or TV series will certainly come in handy.
But as a work in its own right, it stands out in a class of its own.
Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In) breathes a Continental air into Le Carré’s story without harming the quintissential 70s Britain period feel of the original story.
He layers it with tones of melancholy, isolation and gloom, bringing Scandinavian productions such as The Killing and Wallander to mind.
The tones of grey might be many but they create an atmosphere which truly is a feast for the ears and eyes.
And special mention must go to casting director Jina Jay for bringing together a really stellar cast who make this film the absorbing masterpiece it is.
Oldman is a revelation, playing George Smiley with a sublime touch of menacing melancholy.
And Colin Firth, fresh from his recent Oscar success, delivers an understated performance and one of the best scenes at the end of the film – a brief flashback to a Circus Christmas party with close friend and colleague Jim Prideaux.
TTSS is probably too studious and complex to ever be a runaway success at the box office.
But it can no doubt expect a raft of well-deserved awards in ceremonies to come over the next year.
It’s a thoroughly engrossing, visually stunning and thought-provoking film and the kind which finds many new meanings and interpretations with each viewing.
by Chantal Spittles