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Should I Watch..? Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Updated on October 19, 2017
Poster for "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"
Poster for "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" | Source

What's the big deal?

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a dramatic spy film released in 2011 and is an adaptation of the novel by John le Carré. It is the first big-screen adaptation after a TV mini-series first aired on the BBC in 1979 featuring Alec Guinness. It boasts an all-star British line-up including Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, John Hurt, Mark Strong and Gary Oldman as George Smiley, a retired spy who is pressed into action to uncover a Soviet mole in British Intelligence. After premiering at the Venice Film Festival, it was released to critical and commercial success and would go on to secure three Oscar nominations. The film marked the English-language debut for Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, who previously made the vampire thriller Let The Right One In (1).


4 stars for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

What's it about?

In October 1973, the head of the British Intelliegence - Control - authorises a mission to Hungary to help uncover the identity of a Soviet mole within what's known as The Circus, the upper eschelons on British Intelligence. But after agent Jim Prideaux is shot and captured by Soviet forces, the developing international incident forces Control and his right-hand-man George Smiley to retire.

Percy Alleline then becomes the new head of the Circus and appoints Bill Haydon as his deputy. Smiley is then coerced out of retirement to investigate the apparent defection of agent Ricki Tarr who reiterates the suspicion of a mole within the Circus. Smiley learns of a secret program known as Witchcraft is in place that exchanges low-level British intelligence for Soviet information, apparently with the blessing of the CIA. Can Smiley deduce whether the mole is real and can he bring the traitor to justice before the Circus becomes any more compromised?


Main Cast

Gary Oldman
George Smiley / "Beggerman"
Colin Firth
Bill Haydon / "Tailor"
Toby Jones
Percy Alleline / "Tinker"
John Hurt
Benedict Cumberbatch
Peter Guilliam
Tom Hardy
Ricki Tarr
Mark Strong
Jim Prideaux
Ciarán Hinds
Roy Bland / "Soldier"
Simon McBurney
Oliver Lacon

Technical Info

Tomas Alfredson
Bridget O'Conner & Peter Straughan *
Running Time
127 minutes
Release Date (UK)
16th September, 2011
Drama, Spy, Thriller
Academy Award Nominations
Best Leading Actor (Oldman), Best Original Score, Best Adapted Screenplay
* based on the novel by John le Carré
The muted colour palette does a great job of bringing to mind a grey London in the 1970s
The muted colour palette does a great job of bringing to mind a grey London in the 1970s | Source

What's to like?

If nothing else, the film is a masterclass in acting. Oldman's Smiley is a very different sort of cinematic secret agent to the likes we're used to like James Bond or Jason Bourne. Smiley is a minimalist, speaking only when required and using his years of experience as leverage instead of a silenced pistol or swift karate-chop. Smiley uses the threat of violence instead and the character still stands the test of time well, providing a welcome change to jaded viewers used to carnage and colourful locations. But Oldman is one aspect of a brilliant ensemble, illuminated by the likes of Hardy, Cumberbatch, Firth and the rest.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy also feels different to the numerous Bond adventures set in warm, sunny locations by being set in a drab, colourless London in the middle of a wet autumn. It's smart enough to understand that spying isn't about fast cars with missiles under the headlights - it's a shadowy world of rumour and insinuation where danger was more about being vigilant instead of hat-chucking hitmen. This grey world is exemplified by the wonderful use of an extremely faded colour palette which matches the era as well as the context. It feels almost like a documentary and given le Carré's previous history working for MI6 in the 60's, you do wonder how much is fact and how much is fiction.

Fun Facts

  • Director Alfredson recruited author John le Carré to write some of the dialogue during the Circus conference scenes. Le Carré was awarded a cameo in the Christmas party scene for his efforts.
  • As this film is about a suspected Soviet spy within British Intelligence and Alfredson's previous film was called Let The Right One In, it was jokingly referred to as "Get The Wrong One Out".
  • In a flashback scene where Control is speaking on the phone, two porcelain bulldogs draped in Union Jack flags can be seen. One such figurine can also be seen on M's desk in Skyfall (2). They were produced by Royal Doulton during the Second World War and are meant to symbolise patriotism.

What's not to like?

Faded palettes can be a double-edged sword, however. The film suffers from being chronically under lit, meaning scenes are sometimes obscured in near-total darkness. The other thing I didn't like was because of the film's limited running time, I got the distinct whiff of crucial exposition being edited out. At times, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a little too inclusive which left this particular viewer wondering how Smiley was able to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Lastly, the film's pace is quite slow - the film is almost devoid of any action sequences whatsoever, as if afraid to show us the darker side of military intelligence, and this comes as a shock to viewers more used to things blowing up and our hero indulging in casual PG-rated sex. Smiley would never dream of such antics!

But aside from these niggles, the film is a real class act. It feels like a solid adaptation of the book but I fear that the story isn't that well suited to the big screen. It needed some life injecting into it and aside from the final third of the film where the pace picks up a little, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a real slow-burner. Anyone expecting The Bourne Identity (3) or Die Another Day (4) might feel somewhat short-changed.

Oldman's performance is full of subtle menace and grizzled experience
Oldman's performance is full of subtle menace and grizzled experience | Source

Should I watch it?

Whilst not exactly setting the screen ablaze, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a rich and deeply rewarding experience that is chock-full of blistering talent at the peak of their powers. Oldman delivers a performance of subtle menace that begs to be revisited in another story while Alfredson's clever direction is both evocative and well-suited to this slow-burning thriller. It's not your standard spy flick but this Cold War-era drama is well worth a watch.

Great For: British acting talent, Alfredson's reputation, John le Carré's sales

Not So Great For: fans of Bond or Bourne, short attention spans

What else should I watch?

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is enormously reminiscent of a number of Cold War spy films, the likes of which we don't see that often any more. Stuff like Michael Caine's Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (5) and Billion Dollar Brain (6) tend to shy away from the sort of violence and glamour that most movie viewers associate with spying, thanks to the like of Bond movies like Diamonds Are Forever (7) and any of Pierce Brosnan's outings.

Considering that this is the first time that Oldman was nominated for an acting Oscar, it seems incredible given his enormous body of work. From a drug-addled Sid Vicious in Sid And Nancy (8), cinema's most notorious vampire in Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (9), Harry Potter's werewolf godfather Sirius Black in Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban (10) to the impossibly stylish villain Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg in The Fifth Element (11) and his unforgettable crooked cop in Leon (12) - Oldman rarely gives a muted performance and is utterly captivating in these and many more pictures. How he hasn't won the award, I'm putting that down to him being British.


  1. Let The Right One In
  2. Skyfall
  3. The Bourne Identity
  4. Die Another Day
  5. The Ipcress File
  6. Billion Dollar Brain
  7. Diamonds Are Forever
  8. Sid And Nancy
  9. Bram Stoker's Dracula
  10. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban
  11. The Fifth Element
  12. Leon

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