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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

last updated: 13 February 2018 (approximate reading time: 4 minutes; 707 words)

Gary Oldman won the 2018 Oscar in the best actor category. And when I think about Gary Oldman, I think about Tinker Tailor Solder Spy.

Tinker Tailor, the Movie

There are few movies that I can watch time and time again; the 2011 film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one.

Oldman plays George Smiley, a former senior spy who had been obliged to retire after a mission ended in disaster. As suspicion grows that there is a mole within the Service, Smiley is recalled to investigate.

There is a stillness to Oldman’s performance. For first 17-or-therabouts minutes he says nothing. When he does speak, his voice is quiet, his tone restrained, and his manner unfailingly polite.

While the outer Smiley is still and polite, something inside is raging. Maybe it’s the public humiliation of his failed marriage, and his wife’s many and frequent dalliances. Maybe it’s the discredit to his reputation caused by his dismissal.

But despite the rage, with patience and quiet determination Smiley pursues the mole, putting his trust in the work begun by his former boss who was dismissed from the Service at the same time as he was and who has subsequently died.

It is a complex piece with many individual characters—often on screen together. There’s no one fighting “for their tribe”—everyone’s motive seems to be unclear, or if there is any clarity, the motive is self interest.

There is subtlety and nuance and detail everywhere and in every act. Each twist, each betrayal, leaves you wondering, and even the good guys are doing bad things to each other.

If you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend it.

And if you’re a Brit, you will recognize so many actors. The cast includes: the Elephant Man, Waynetta Slob, Lady Edith Crawley, the one with the metal detector who wasn’t in The Office, Mr Darcy/Mark Darcy, Sherlock Holmes, Charles Bronson, and not forgetting Trigger. There was also a walk-on part for John le Carré. And if you haven’t been watching British TV for the last 20 years, I do understand that some of these references may be a bit obscure 😁

The Novel

The film was, of course, based on the 1974 novel (of the same name) by John le Carré.

It might seem odd for an author to ignore source material—and, naturally, you should read the book—but, for me, I first came across George Smiley and the world of Tinker Tailor in the BBC TV miniseries.

TV Miniseries

The BBC TV series was first broadcast in 1979. It was lent additional veracity and urgency by the umbrella murder of Georgi Markov which had taken place the previous year. The scene of Markov’s attack was half a mile away from the location of the Circus (the fictional Service’s headquarters).

Let’s be honest for a moment. While this production was doubtless a considerable expense on the part of the BBC at the time, it was made cheaply. But that cheapness probably reflects more of the reality of the situation—the British Secret Service in the 1970s was run on a tiny budget.

It was also filmed within a few years of the time setting in the book (the book was set in 1973), so I suspect that once locations had been found there was little need to dress the set to recreate the era. Equally, in 1979 showing London broken and bankrupt after World War II was mostly just a case of pointing a camera in any direction.

So while the TV series lacks some of the gloss of the film version, I suspect that its look is much closer to the reality.

In addition, being set over seven 45 minute episodes allows for a slower pace making the tightening of the noose a more rewarding experience. The compression of the movie into two hours is good, but some stories just feel better over five hours.

And for me, George Smiley will always be Alec Guinness, but Gary Oldman does play a very good Alec Guinness.

Seek out the television version (Amazon is your friend)—it’s well worth a watch. The 4:3 ratio (with the black bars on the sides of your screen) coupled with standard definition will remind you that you’re watching the 1970s. 

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