Venice 2011. Tomas Alfredson's "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"

A very strong first round of reviews for Alfredson's adaptation of John Le Carré's classic novel.
David Hudson

"Right here, right now, it's the film to beat at this year's festival," announces the Guardian's Xan Brooks. "Nimbly navigating the labyrinthine source novel by John Le Carré, [Tomas] Alfredson eases us through a run-down 70s London, all the way to a municipal MI6 bunker, out by the train yards. This, it transpires, is 'the Circus,' a warren of narrow corridors and smoke-filled offices, patrolled by jumpy, ulcerous men with loose flesh and thinning hair, peering into the shadows in search of a spy. There's a mole at the top of the Circus, a 'deep-penetration agent' leaking secrets to the Soviets. Control (John Hurt) has narrowed the hunt to five likely suspects. Now all that remains is for diffident George Smiley (Gary Oldman), working off the books and under the radar, to steal in and identify the culprit."

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy "is the kind of spy film where the menace stems from the fact anyone could be a double or even triple spy and the devil is in the details," writes Boyd van Hoeij at Cineuropa. "Impressively, readers familiar with the outcome will still find a lot too enjoy here, as each shot contains fascinating little details, ranging from shot composition to the set decoration and from sound choices to small directorial flourishes. Production designer Maria Djurkovic (The Hours) and Dutch-Swedish cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema create a world whose predominantly drab colour palette is inspired by very things the characters seem to handle all the time: yellowing paper files, whiskey and, occasionally, tea."


Dave Calhoun in Time Out London: "The tale is more or less as Le Carré had it, give or take the odd tweak — Hong Kong becomes Istanbul, for one, and Czechoslovakia is now Hungary. But the gist is still the same. A well-connected civil servant, hushed, conspiratorial Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney, naturally), recruits Smiley and an assistant, the younger spy Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch, playing Watson to Smiley's Sherlock), to decipher which of his ex-colleagues is a high-level spy passing secrets to the Russians. Others are starting to believe what Smiley's old boss Control (John Hurt) had long suspected before his ousting from the service following a bungled operation by taciturn, hard-as-nails spy Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) in Budapest: there's a 'rotten apple' at the top of the service. Is it dilettantish peacock Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), sour Scot Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), gruff, unremarkable Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) or Hungarian émigré Tony Esterhase (David Dencik)? The catalyst for Smiley's operation is new information revealed by renegade agent Ricki Tarr, played by a brilliantly wily and rakish Tom Hardy. The only woman briefly to steal the show is Kathy Burke, filling the tough old boots of Beryl Reid as Smiley's old pal and colleague Connie Sachs, although it's hard to imagine Reid delivering the line, 'I feel seriously underfucked,' as she does so deliciously to Oldman: 'George… wicked, wicked George.'"

"Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, hot off the impressive child-vampire thriller Let The Right One In, makes an ideal candidate to handle Tinker's chilly, melancholic intrigue and serve up a dispassionate portrait of miserable, paranoid spies," finds Matt Mueller at Thompson on Hollywood. "Gary Oldman too is an actor with the finely calibrated talent to wipe memories of Alec Guinness's iconic performance as George Smiley, the nondescript intelligence analyst whose sad, drab exterior masks a fluent, animated intellect."

"The pace may feel a little deliberate for some tastes, but the slow burn pays off in a richly satisfying piece of storytelling brought to life by a once in a generation cast," writes Allan Hunter in Screen.


The Observer's Jason Solomons: "I don't think there's a duff note in the whole piece, not even in the choice of Almodóvar's usual composer, Alberto Iglesias, to do the score."

For Tom Shone, Smiley ranks among the best of Oldman's performances.

Guardian interviews: Xan Brooks with Tomas Alfredson and Emma John with Benedict Cumberbatch.

Updates: "Like the characters within the story who are all haunted by the past, the film itself has its ghosts," writes Leslie Felperin in Variety. "Older viewers will remember well the BBC-Paramount seven-part miniseries from 1979, which starred Alec Guinness as an avuncular, donnish Smiley. The show was a hit perhaps not just because of the intrinsically compelling espionage story: Following on the heels of Watergate and the fall of the Shah in Iran, which prompted a crisis of confidence in intelligence networks, Tinker, Tailor chimed with an international sense of disillusionment with those in power. The notion that deep in the heart of democracy, those who were supposed to be its staunchest defenders might be unprincipled traitors, resonated with auds anxious about a volatile future. Now, in the wake of corruption scandals that include the world banking crisis, this version of Tinker, Tailor catches the newest wave of disillusionment and anxiety. It may be a period piece, right down to the slacks flared just so and the vintage wallpaper, but it feels painfully apt now to revisit the early-to-mid-1970s, when things were just about to fall apart."

"We're virtually past the point of having to say that Tom Hardy is brilliant in a film," writes Oliver Lyttelton at the Playlist, "but brilliant he is, and once more showing new strings to his bow; soft and vulnerable, deeply wounded by being shut out by his employers, he couldn't be more different to his other turn of the moment, the brutal, turned inward brawler in Warrior. More of a breakout is Benedict Cumberbatch, until now best known for his starring role as the BBC's Sherlock. He's a total professional, willing to walk through fire for Smiley, but there's a simmering anger in his performance, a slow build of paranoia as he's asked to turn against his masters. It's a beautifully layered turn, considering his public persona as a flirt and a playboy, something that pays off beautifully in a quietly devastating scene, one that may be prove controversial to die-hard fans of the book."


"We've never seen Oldman like this before," writes the Telegraph's David Gritten, "and he's simply stunning: his soliloquy about his only meeting with his counterpart, the Soviet super-spy Karla, is so engrossing you forget to breathe."

For the Telegraph, Anita Singh talks with Le Carré: "I approached the prospect of a feature film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with the same misgivings that would have afflicted anyone else who had loved the television series of 32 years ago. George Smiley was Alec Guinness, Alec was George, period. How could another actor equal let alone surpass him? My anxieties were misplaced. And if people write to me and say, 'How could you let this happen to poor old Alec Guinness?,' I shall reply that, if 'poor Alec' had witnessed Oldman's performance, he would have been the first to give it a standing ovation."

"The key to Oldman's performance in this beautifully constructed thriller is that he's not trying to top anyone, not even himself," writes Stephanie Zacharek in Movieline. "In the late 80s and early 90s, Oldman built a career out of playing brash roles — in pictures like Sid and Nancy, JFK and True Romance — layered with so much acting that you could barely discern a character beneath. But in recent years, he's shown a more delicate touch; no longer having to be the over-the-top kid, the flashiest performer in the room, has agreed with him." Here, "Oldman's dignity, borne of experience and of making lots and lots of mistakes, is less something you can see than something you can feel. He wears his character's regrets lightly, like a bespoke jacket, a state of being made just for him. It's a remarkable performance."

"In many ways," writes Guy Lodge, after a mention of Let the Right One In at In Contention, "Alfredson directs le Carré's self-described 'little gray men' of Britain's MI6 intelligence service as if they are themselves vampires of the Cold War: lurking in irremovable half-light, striking efficiently and selectively, and only notionally acquainted with the concept of sunlight, these thickly-tweeded spies appear to bear the burden of their profession as a lifelong alibi for the avoidance of intimacy, social functionality and even standard-issue conversation…. Alfredson was an inspired but sensitive choice to direct this potentially outmoded material, and his delicate mood-cultivating sensibility reaps the same rare rewards that it did in his previous hit. A classy throwback to the pleasures of long-view tale-spinning, and an evocation of a time and place fading before its occupants' own eyes, this is as inactively riveting a thriller as anyone is allowed to make these days."

"It is one of the few films so visually absorbing, felicitous shot after shot, that its emotional coldness is noticed only at the end," writes Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter. "Loyalty and betrayal are really but perfunctory undercurrents in the dense screenplay by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O'Connor."

Viewing (1'35"). "Chris Fletcher, keeper of special collections at the Bodleian library, showed BBC News the original writings of the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy novel by John Le Carré."



Updates, 9/6: "Whatever else, Tinker Tailor underlines the strength of British character acting," writes Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent. "Alfredson's movie doesn't have richness and depth of characterisation of the Alec Guinness version, but once the hunt is afoot, this Smiley Redux turns into a rattling good spy yarn in its own right."

Film Zeit rounds up reviews in German.

Creative Review has posted four silk-screen posters for the film designed by Paul Smith, each appearing in editions of 50 and going for  £100 each, with all profits going to Maggie's Cancer Caring Centres.

Catherine Shoard interviews John Hurt for the Guardian.

Update, 9/8: Cath Clarke talks with Oldman for Time Out London.

Updates, 9/9: For Time's Richard Corliss, the "colorful characters are anomalies in a film so determined to act as an antidote to spy capers that it fairly shrieks its subtlety. Here, the old British stiff-upper-lip slowly forms a rictus."

"It's a beautifully-judged thriller whose relationship with its predecessor simply gives it another layer of interest," argues the Guardian's Danny Leigh. "In this it's not alone. I say enough. The time has come for the remake to stop being ashamed of itself."

Update, 9/10: In the Telegraph, "Toby Clements looks at the enigmatic life and work of a man whose best novels transcended the spy genre to capture the flavour of 70s Britain."

Updates, 9/11: "Neal Ascherson, the Observer's correspondent in eastern Europe in the 1960s, on the furtive world of the cold war spies." Also, Akin Ojumu talks with costume designer Jacqueline Durran.

"Not even the conclusion of the Cold War has ended our love affair with spooks. New enemies to dispatch, new secrets to uncover, new bombs to defuse and new hearts to break are being invented as the genre goes from strength to strength." The Independent on Sunday "presents its own spy-pick with 10 of the best."

Dave Will's designed a new poster.

Update, 9/13: Agnès Poirier was in Venice and notes in the Guardian "how fascinating it was to see how well a Swede had captured Britain and (a certain fringe of) British society in the early 1970s. Espionage may be a French word; it is nonetheless a British forte."

Updates, 9/15: "The movie brilliantly conjures up the heavy weather of Le Carré's spy game," writes the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw: "it involves nothing like derring-do, but a ritual of humiliation and a ballet of shame in which the security services play their part in managing decline and managing denial, and the Brit spooks try to rebuild their reputation with the Americans — the only people with secrets worth keeping — in their calamitous post-Philby world."

"Like The Lives of Others and like much contemporary Romanian cinema, it looks back at the Cold War era — its cruelties and banalities — with a clear, cold eye," writes the Telegraph's Sukhdev Sandhu. And both of these are 5-out-of-5-star reviews, by the way.



Updates, 9/16: For Leo Robson, writing in the Financial Times, "this bloodless, bloodthirsty John Le Carré adaptation doesn’t hang together. There is a whodunnit plot with only one plausible suspect, and a crucial eureka moment without a breakthrough to prompt it. The director tries to out-Kubrick Kubrick with a prowling camera and an icy tone — but fails."

"[W]e could be looking at the most unglamorous spy movie ever made," suggests Anthony Quinn in the Independent. "It is set (almost inevitably) in the early 1970s and comes wrapped in about a hundred different shades of brown. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the anti-Bond movie par excellence. Instead of sex and speedboats we get a dinosaur museum of predigital telephones, drab duds and anonymous office space. A dab of colour in this setting is like a party balloon emerging from an ash cloud. Unglamorous, yes, and... unreconstructed. But certainly not unexciting."

"Terrifically cast, moodily shot and constructed with the delicacy of a house of cards, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a delightfully old-fashioned thriller with a tenebrous twist of modernity," writes Emma Simmonds at the Arts Desk.

Viewing (4'32"). The Guardian's Xan Brooks talks with Colin Firth.

New poster design by Matt Needle.

Updates, 9/17: Terrence Rafferty in the New York Times on John le Carré: "What the failed adaptations of his books had made clear was that even in his relatively straightforward early novels his narrative techniques were a little too tricky for the movies to handle. Mr le Carré is maybe the most eccentric constructor of fiction in English literature since Joseph Conrad. His stories are full of digressions and long flashbacks; he circles around his plots for the longest time, as if he were doing reconnaissance on them before deciding to go in for the kill…. In the 70s Mr le Carré's novels became yet more daunting: denser, more complex, more stubbornly ambiguous. It's as if he had determined to make them movie-proof."

In the Guardian: William Boyd's A-Z guide to Smiley's world.

Update, 9/18: "[T]his is as lucid and accomplished a screen version of a long, complicated novel as I have seen," writes the Observer's Philip French.

Update, 9/20: "The underlying assumption, in this chess match between upmarket spooks," writes Peter Preston in the Guardian, "is that what they were doing mattered, that they were garnering vital intelligence to keep a free world free. But now we know that was just more superior tosh."

Venice 2011 Index. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is competing in Venice and will open in the UK on September 16 and in the US on December 9. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @thedailyMUBI on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


Tomas AlfredsonVeniceVenice 2011DailyFestival Coverage
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.