Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

PLOT: In London, circa the early seventies, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) – a “scalp hunter” for The Circus- a division of MI6, remerges after a presumed defection, with information suggesting that one of the heads of The Circus is a deep cover mole for the Soviets. The minister of intelligence recruits George Smiley (Gary Oldman) – an agent drummed out of the service after a botched operation, to investigate the claim. Using his protégé, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) to infiltrate The Circus, Smily must determine which of the four section heads, code named Tinker (Toby Jones), Tailor (Colin Firth), Soldier (Ciaran Hinds), Spy (David Dencik) is the mole.

REVIEW: John Le Carré is a famously difficult author to adapt. His complicated, twisty-tales of espionage are known for their bitingly realistic look at the spy game (his pen-name is actually a pseudonym that he adopted due to being an active MI6 agent when he started writing). TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY was previously adapted (to great acclaim) by the BBC, with Alec Guinness making an iconic George Smiley, who Le Carré has prominently featured in many novels.

In a way, Smiley is like the anti-Bond. He’s middle-aged, not particularly charismatic, physically weak, and a cuckolded husband (with his wife Anne being serially unfaithful). Smiley’s strength is his mind, which allows him to be a master manipulator who approaches the spy game like a chess match.

Tomas Alfredson’s TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is without a doubt the best big-screen adaptation of vintage Le Carré since the classic THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (which almost functions as a prequel to this, with Smiley playing a small but significant part). Gary Oldman, for the first time in years, gets a role that really calls upon his immense talent as a chameleon. Using only a pair of thick glasses, Oldman is able to make himself almost unrecognizable as the quiet, introspective Smiley- evident in the way he carries himself or even swims- with his head always above water, never mussing his hair or glasses. Oldman also does something really intriguing with his voice, giving Smiley an upper-crust, halting way of speech that’s far from how Oldman normally sounds. It’s an intriguing choice, and fully appropriate for the character, who only speaks when absolutely necessary (Oldman doesn’t utter a single word until about fifteen minutes in).

Coupled with Alfredson’s taut, elegant direction and you get a spy yarn that’s unlike any other you’re bound to see anytime soon. In Le Carré’s world, being a spy is not even remotely glamorous, and the barren Circus offices are wildly different from the sleek MI6 headquarters of the Bond films. Here, The Circus is so underfunded that at the drunken X-Mas party, one of the bureaucrats tries to water down the punch to avoid spending too much money on alcohol. I can’t imagine M or Q doing the same thing.

Boasting Le Carré’s gift for characterization, along with one of the best casts in recent memory, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is the kind of film that, while thoroughly enjoyable while you’re watching it, grows in your mind afterwards. About twenty-four hours after watching this I was struck by the notion that it might be one of the best films I’ve seen all year- and one of the few films to have that effect on me was the RED RIDING TRILOGY.

Other than Oldman, the other standout performances come from Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, and Mark Strong. Fresh from his acclaimed turn in BBC’s SHERLOCK (as well as a strong role in Steven Spielberg’s WAR HORSE), Cumberbatch plays one of those mid-level bureaucrats that by necessity is thrown into the cloak and dagger machinations of Smiley’s plot. He’s used as Smiley’s pawn, despite being thoroughly unsuited emotionally for this type of work, and a lengthy set piece where he tries to smuggle a ledger out of The Circus, is the highlight of the film.

Of course, Tom Hardy is bound to get a lot of recognition of his role as Ricki Tarr, and once again he proves himself to be a chameleon worthy of comparisons to Oldman. Here, he plays a playboy-style agent, suddenly stricken by his conscience due to a relationship he forms with a doomed asset. It’s by far the most reserved I’ve seen Hardy thus far, and a great part. Mark Strong- who seems to be in everything these days, has one of the best roles in the film, with him playing another “Scalphunter”, whose function is solely to be used as a blunt tool and then abandoned. It’s a small part, but it sticks with you. Last year’s Best Actor Oscar-winner Colin Firth takes the same regal bearing he used in THE KING’S SPEECH for his part, infusing it with ruthlessness and amorality that will no doubt shock his fans. He’s superb.

In addition to the aforementioned actors, there are also superb roles for Toby Jones, John Hurt and many others. For anyone that likes sophisticated, adult entertainment, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is an easy sell, and my rave probably won’t tell you anything you don’t already know from the trailers. Yes folks, it’s just as good as it looks, and it’s one of the highlights of an already good year.

Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy




About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.