Cold War revisited with Subtle Menace

This is my review of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy [DVD] [2011].

This film requires intense concentration, as the scenes switch back and forth in time, and are often so momentary that you could miss an important piece of information. As is so often the case these days, the quality of acting is excellent – I could hear every word – together with the artistry of the photography and the careful construction of scenes with background music to bring back a sense of the 1970s.

Although one of the actors has warned in an interview that the film is hard to follow if you are unfamiliar with the plot, I think I "got" most of it. In some ways, not knowing the details beforehand may have been an advantage as I could not get annoyed over any omissions or new twists. My slight disappointment over the denouement – unmasking of the suspected mole in MI6 – may be because, when pared down to fit into two hours, the essential plot seems rather slight with a few of the usual "But what about?" flaws. It rose in my estimation when I was reminded that Le Carré has been a real spy, and that his novel, on which the film is based, was inspired by the defection of Kim Philby. If the mole's reasons for treachery seem rather unconvincing, they are no more shallow than those of the real-life traitor – I gather that this privileged lover of the good life had a hard time adapting to the grim reality of Soviet Moscow.

Although some scenes are slow in pace, perhaps to reflect the bureaucracy and stuffiness of M16, the need for a spy to watch and wait patiently, there is a persistent sense of menace and impending violence. Played by Gary Oldman, the ruthlessness behind George Smiley's impeccable manners and measured approach is subtle yet very apparent, as is his repressed grief over his wife's infidelity. In another subtle touch, Ann Smiley is never seen fully, just "in flagrante" in a shady conservatory during a party, or as a shadow returning home – enough to arouse a rare, barely visible smile as Smiley comes back to work at "the Circle". Oldman acts out very well his recollection of a meeting when he tried to "turn" Karla, the "Moriati" of the KGB. Would this have been better as a flashback with Karla "in person"?

I suspect that the story may have suffered from being squeezed into two hours but the film is worth seeing, if only to bring back memories of the Cold War and prompt you to go and read one of Le Carré's novels or look at the DVD of the 1970s TV version of "Tinker Tailor" with Alec Guinness.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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