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Gary Oldman
Colin Firth
Tom Hardy
Kathy Burke
Benedict Cumberbatch
David Dencik
Stephen Graham
Ciarán Hinds
John Hurt
Toby Jones
Simon McBurney
Mark Strong.
Thomas Alfredson.
Bridget O'Connor
Peter Straughan.
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127 minutes

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Oldman has a Smiley face!

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London, the 1970s: After a fiasco of a covert operation, British Intelligence spymaster Control (Hurt) and his right-hand man George Smiley (Oldman) are sacked. Then shocking but persuasive information that a Soviet mole has penetrated to the heart of the secret service prompts the Whitehall wallahs to task Smiley with spying on the spies.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
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It was certainly a brave undertaking, tackling what is not only one of the greatest espionage novels ever, but one whose 1979 serialisation by the BBC lingers in the memory of everyone of a certain age. It’s a pleasure and a relief, then, that the film succeeds in its own right. It is a superior whodunnit thriller and a very grown-up one, devoted not to guns, girls, gadgets and glamour, but to the little grey cells. And in plumbing George Smiley’s grey matter, Gary Oldman has understood the illusion of being a nondescript sort of little man with a remarkable mind, authority and a gut full of secret sorrows and sins behind the serious spectacles.

The starting point is a fine screenplay by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor that rings a few changes to John le Carré’s tale. Most of them are subtle, sensible, and a couple are even a touch humorous. It probably goes without saying that the sterling cast is uniformly on top of things, undoubtedly delighted to find themselves in such excellent company. The real stroke was recruiting Tomas Alfredson. With Swedish melancholia in vogue, the Let The Right One In director proves an ideal choice to turn a baleful gaze on le Carré’s perfectly miserable spies — a breed of men he characterised as unromantic figures prone to unpleasant stomach ailments and trouble with their wives. Alfredson is clearly a kindred spirit of both le Carré and Smiley, intently focused and with a dispassionate eye for the small, telling detail: on a face, in a room, from a conversation.

Pulled back into the Cold War spy game to unmask the traitor in the Circus that is MI6, Smiley learns that Control (John Hurt) had sniffed the mole and assigned code names for his principle suspects. Tinker is smug Percy Alleline (Toby Jones). Tailor is sardonic Bill Haydon (Colin Firth). Soldier is bluff proletarian Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds). Poor Man is prissy émigré Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), and sadsack Smiley, also a suspect, Beggarman. Evidently Control grasps Smiley’s two weaknesses: his love for faithless wife Ann, and his fascination with Soviet counterpart Karla. It’s a great decision that we never see the faces of Ann or Karla, shadowy figures who loom large in Smiley’s capacious memory. In one particularly arresting scene, Smiley relates his sole face-to-face encounter with Karla years earlier — not through flashback, but an anecdote in which he becomes uniquely animated, re-enacting his dialogue with the cruelly astute Russian.

Other key players in the chess game include Mark Strong’s dutiful, tragic Jim Prideaux, dangled as bait, betrayed and abandoned… to become a teacher. Nowadays, of course, it is hard to imagine even the most third-rate public school engaging a darkly mysterious man with no past and permitting him to entertain small boys to tea in his rackety-packety caravan, but it’s in keeping with the seediness that deliberately pervades the whole shebang, from the desiccated Control, with his messy rooms and his paranoid plotting, to the nicely cheesy selection of Julio Iglesias warbling La Mer over the end montage.

It’s probable Benedict Cumberbatch had the most fun as Peter Guillam, Smiley’s trusted legman (amusingly, TV’s Sherlock plays what Ian Nathan aptly described as Smiley’s Watson) with a groovy narrow-cut suit, fruity ties and a ’60s pop-star haircut. He features in a showpiece nail-biter of a sequence; it’s the good old filching-of-secret-documents routine, but his progress from the security entrance and through the corridors of The Circus — brushing by suspects and the suspicious — is achieved with sweat trickling in suspense. Tom Hardy is the bit of rough Ricki Tarr, a foot soldier at the thuggish end of field work, but one with the instincts to know when he’s been sent on a fool’s errand and when to run. It is the return of AWOL agent Ricki that raises the alarm and sets Smiley on the right track. It’s wonderful to see Kathy Burke cajoled back into acting for a key scene as boozy Connie, the researcher forcibly retired to shut her up and shelve her encyclopedic memory. There’s even a cameo from le Carré, who can be seen among the Circus staff drunkenly hailing the arrival of Santa Lenin at the ghastly office Christmas party revisited in a series of discreetly revelatory flashbacks.

Those who have not read the book or seen the BBC version do not need to worry overmuch about plot complexities or following the threads — Ricky Tarr’s odyssey out in the cold, the workings of Alleline’s pet project Operation Witchcraft, the language of the ‘service’ — although they are well laid out. What matters are the layers and levels of betrayal, to country, cause, colleagues, lovers and to self, from great to small, like a nested Russian doll.

Rarely do critics complain that a film isn’t long enough, but this is the almost freakish exception. The film is so well paced over its two-odd hours, but another half-hour could have been used to give the suspects more to do and to generate yet more suspense and concern about which of them is the traitor. It’s really the revelation of the mole that lets the side down — it doesn’t deliver the punch to the gut one wants. Of course, if you haven’t worked out who it is by then, you must be very innocent in the ways of these things. Of course it is him. It had to be him. But his all-of-a-sudden apprehension and the tableau greeting the latecomer arriving at the scene of the double-dealer’s downfall, while laudable in its restraint and lack of histrionics, is a trifle too cool.

Oldman’s performance is most eloquent and expressive in his fluent command of body language. The set of his shoulders and his posture, the occasional adjustment of his spectacles, tell you precisely what’s going on in Smiley’s mind. There is a moment near the end when we only see him from the back but feel an electric thrill, knowing with certainty by his stance that his heart has leapt at what he has seen. Alfredson is startlingly adept at envisioning how Smiley’s mind works; you can almost see the wheels turning as the pieces of the puzzle click together (at one point you literally see tracks converging as he nears his ‘Eureka!’ moment), and a clever piece of sound editing filters conversations through Smiley’s thought process until he homes in on a phrase that is the key to everything. And then there is his face in his final shot; we recognise the sweet taste of game over, game well-played in his mouth.

Utterly absorbing, extremely smart and - considering this is a sad, shabby, drably grey-green world of obsessives, misfits, misdirection, disillusionment, self-delusion and treachery - quite beautifully executed.

Reviewed by Angie Errigo

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Your Reviews

Average user rating for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Empire Star Rating

Struggling to watch this

Very slow. Lacks any pace whatsoever. Turned the 42 incher off after 30 minutes the first night. Second night I turned it off after another 30 or so. Great cast but an hour in I'm struggling to care about anything that's happening. A lot of looong pauses that would have Harold Pinter screaming at the screen for the actors to get on with it! ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by ladybooger at 22:14, 16 January 2014 | Report This Post

An instant British classic

Oldman should have won the Oscar. Same goes for the screenwriters for managing to condense the huge story into just two hours and not making it feel like a crammed mess. Beautifully directed by Alfredson too. I've not read the book but I've watched the series and from what I can tell they couldn't have done a more perfect job adapting it to the big screen. Bravo! ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Mr Gittes at 02:48, 07 February 2013 | Report This Post


Dull dreary grey and zzzzzzzzzzz. Great cast, well shot but so so very dull. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by danielthompson99 at 16:05, 27 June 2012 | Report This Post

RE: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Why Five Stars?

Anyone else think the white make-up was alittle overused on G.Oldman (smiley)? Great film btw. One of those films where you can watch over and over again because you always feel you have missed out on little snipets of information. Really enjoyable. Side Note: Great to see such a great british cast. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by OPEN YOUR EYES at 12:16, 28 February 2012 | Report This Post

RE: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Why Five Stars?

Okay, time to toss my hat in the ring here. I attmepted to read the book not so long ago, having been aware of the films' imminent release and being unable to resist the lure of something considered to be such a classic. Now, I read anything and everything, and I don't care if it makes me sound like an uncultured buffoon - the book utterly, completely, baffled and bored the hell out of me. I was lost by the end of the first chapter. It was just all so stiff upper-lipped and... slow. I ... More

Posted by Drone at 23:24, 22 February 2012 | Report This Post

RE: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Why Five Stars?

^I very much agree with the above, I would give it 4 1/2 too. It's true that if you don't concentrate and expect to be spoon fed information you will not enjoy it. The subtlety and grace is marvellous, it is never over-dramatised and relies on the viewer to keep up. It's definitely satisfying in the end when after you have followed along for so long, the mystery finally gets solved. Oldman tells us more with a few small body movements then other actors do with ten lines. Not much mor... More

Posted by TheFuzz_1989 at 13:09, 22 February 2012 | Report This Post

RE: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Why Five Stars?

In Roger Ebert's review of TTSS he did his usual shpeel about how in political thrillers you have to remember an awful lot of names and events, and often in doing so, you ignore what is happening. I knew what he meant, so I went prepared. Even without acknowledging Roger's review, it's still one of those movies where you sort of need a second person in there with you to verify what has happened in order for you to understand what's happening. It helped a lot. I was constantly leanin... More

Posted by threshold at 23:01, 21 February 2012 | Report This Post

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Why Five Stars?

I enjoyed this film: intelligent design, quietly cool, several understated performances. It is certainly not the Stinker that some have suggested; however, simply because it isn't the usual run-of-the-mill fodder we are normally served should not elevate its status to five stardom. A good film indeed, but not a great one (cf. lelandmeeks' post). Note: Cumberbatch is very good and should dispatch TV Holmes (dreadful) forthwith. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Pop Leibel at 18:05, 21 February 2012 | Report This Post



Empire User Rating

Posted by soulfood at 22:04, 17 February 2012 | Report This Post

Sorry, I've missed the bandwagon!

I just don't understand the amount of hype and praise this film has received. Yes, it is well made. Yes, it is intricate in detail. Yes, the performances are good (Mark Strong is always excellent). But NO it isn't 5stars. No, no, no, no. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by lelandmeeks at 10:14, 16 February 2012 | Report This Post

Sorry, I've missed the bandwagon!

I just don't understand the amount of hype and praise this film has received. Yes, it is well made. Yes, it is intricate in detail. Yes, the performances are good (Mark Strong is always excellent). But NO it isn't 5stars. No, no, no, no. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by lelandmeeks at 09:52, 16 February 2012 | Report This Post


Was quite disappointed by this. I'd only recently watched the BBC series so that was really fresh in my mind and as a result this seemed all over the place. A totally unecessary film IMO. Some really good performances though and to be fair it is rather well made it's just that I don't see the point in it's existence when you can buy the original BBC series on DVD for a fiver. The performances in that are better, the story is fleshed out better and it makes much more sense. 2.5/5 ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Harry Tuttle at 16:16, 15 February 2012 | Report This Post


Really enjoyed this - brilliantly paced (although I spent about 40 minutes at the start wondering if I hadn't been listening, but it all came together in the end). Some terrific performances from Oldman, Firth, Cumberbatch and Hardy in particular. Shame that Kathy Burke wasn't particularly good, she's usually really good (see This Year's Love for a top performance from her) - her attempt at a posh accent stuck out like a sore thumb and almost sounded like a Harry Enfield sketch. ... More

Posted by UTB at 14:10, 09 February 2012 | Report This Post


Okay, some good performances but so half hearted performances too, which overall didnt deliver what i was expecting. Kathy Burke wasnt good. Pretty slow not helped by so many names to remember and inaudible dialogue. I havent seen the original tv series, i fancy watching it but is it the same story, outcome? someone tell please ... More

Posted by kargon at 09:15, 09 February 2012 | Report This Post

tp://]Tinker Tailor Soldier Spyfter Let The Right One In, Thomas Alfredson`s second feature film is another really slowburning film, one that you rather have to experience then to see. If you do so then you got an excellent total picture: the grey,moody colour pllet that perfectly first the 70s and the slow pace of the film in combination with the beautiful cinematography, the magnificent performances of Gary Oldman and John Hurt and a story that is well constructed ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by TheGodfather at 22:21, 08 February 2012 | Report This Post


I was very optimistic about this film as it were being made (having loved Let The Right One In!) and for once with modern didnt dissapoint!. All the hype was worth it and I loved evry minute of this film. Gary Oldman (superb as always) and a terrific supporting cast. The dark gloomy direction and the fact that it was slow, it was still really tense in parts. Im becoming a really big fan of Alfredsson now. This guy seems to be one hell of a talented director. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Gazz 10 at 03:44, 25 January 2012 | Report This Post


This movie was interesting and very well made, I loved retro tone it manages to set with use of lighting music and costume, some lovely sshots aswell. But the ending was a little dull and slow, And seems to end just before everything gets to interesting. Kinda get the impression that empire overrates British films sometimes. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by extrablueboy at 16:37, 24 January 2012 | Report This Post

Exactly why we are getting these re-makes of classic bbc tv series I really don't know; this was not bad but one cannot help comparing it all the time with the original And of course this being originally a series there was far more time to flush out the characters and their motivations. But this is what really spoiled the movie for me; after all the raves over Gary Oldman's performance what we got was simply a very clever impersonation of Alec Guinness in the same part! His movements,manner o... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Musicals at 20:07, 10 January 2012 | Report This Post

Exactly why we are getting these re-makes of classic bbc tv series I really don't know; this was not bad but one cannot help comparing it all the time with the original And of course this being originally a series there was far more time to flush out the characters and their motivations. But this is what really spoiled the movie for me; after all the raves over Gary Oldman's performance what we got was simply a very clever impersonation of Alec Guinness in the same part! His movements,manner o... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Musicals at 20:07, 10 January 2012 | Report This Post

A modern masterpiece!

Tinker Tailor is a slow burning masterpiece of modern cinema and one of the best adaptions from book to film to date. If you go in expecting an action packed spy thriller in the style of Bourne or Bond then you will be very dissapointed. This is a thinking mans spy thriller that requires 100% of the viewers attention and patience as it is slow moving but very realistic. The cast is one of the best british assembles to date and the performances are spot on. Oldman is superb as Smiley and it's goo... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by dannyfletch at 22:12, 07 January 2012 | Report This Post

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Review

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a dense puzzle of anxiety, paranoia, and espionage that director Tomas Alfredson pieces together with utmost skill. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by the film man at 13:11, 20 December 2011 | Report This Post

LA MER ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Indiana James at 18:32, 26 November 2011 | Report This Post

A singular disappointment...

Toneless direction of soap opera acting from a flavourless pablum script. Please, don't think that for the first twenty minutes this is a slow burn warming up; don't think that for the next twenty minutes you missed something; don't be afraid to walk out. And don't let this turgid misfire put you off picking up the book; a story telling of all relationships betrayed, a man of his country and his comrades, a country of its past and its promise; relationships, truths, and untruths hidden and r... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by drewbert_1700 at 00:31, 16 October 2011 | Report This Post

Could have walked out!

I haven't wanted to walk out on a film so much since Churchill: The Hollywood Years (well, switch off the DVD anyway. I wasn't quite stupid enough to pay cinema prices for that turgid rubbish). Obviously my desire to walk out on this film was for an entirely different reason and it's in it's own walk-out league. Clearly the film has some tremendous actors in it and the acting itself is top class. However, the big let down is the pace (Empire?!) and the story in general. It is not intere... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by joe4560 at 23:48, 07 October 2011 | Report This Post

RE: Hmm

Brillant from start to finish, after all the pap we sit through during the summer this was like eating steak after a diet of candy floss. The whole cast was superb and it was great to see Gary Oldman reminding us just what a great fucking talent he is. Gary, you sir,deserve the Oscar. 4.5/5 ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Happy Shrapnel at 11:04, 07 October 2011 | Report This Post

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