First screened in the ‘golden age’ of BBC drama and eagerly followed by a whole generation, for many critics the original Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was a perfect espionage thriller in which Alec Guinness could do no wrong. The old guard will claim that Gary Oldman’s George Smiley is that much more ponderous, always with a strained down-turn of the mouth, compared to the naturalness of Guinness’ ease, the zen-like chilly calm with which he polishes his glasses. This is half fair. Oldman does remind me somewhat of Kenneth Branagh’s slightly campy perpetual grump in the BBC re-imagining of Wallander, which Krister Henriksson handles with undeniably greater subtlety. In the original, Alec Guinness can smile, he is funnier, he can fantasise about retiring to a small house in the Cotswolds without us ever doubting that he is inescapably tied to ‘The Circus’. For Oldman, there is little joy, except for the occasional, bracing, ice-cold swim in Hampstead Ponds. We almost trust Oldman too much; Guinness looks like a sweet old man, but he’ll slip out of a second hand bookshop by the backdoor, checking his back when unbolting his door like a geriatric Jason Bourne.
The new Tinker, Tailor film is slow-paced; it is no use to criticise it for not being quite as slow as a 1970s, seven-part TV series (which, incidentally, does not always sustain the tension it pitches for; the sequel Smiley’s People, also starring Guinness, is deadeningly dull). It isn’t that the new film makes the original more exciting; Mark Strong’s character, in the opening minutes of the new film, is shot and seized neatly with only two shots being fired. The opening of the BBC series feels like the opening of a series of 24, with a small army of communist machine gunners chasing Jim Prideaux through a forrest, after blowing up his car and eliminating his driver.
To some extent, the film has to try a lot harder to be slow and thoughtful but it is in a climate in which this is a more of a treat; it’s hard to blame Alfredson for relishing it.
The film cannot help being a reinvention, it is part of its strength. The character of Smiley is a result of constant reinterpretation, having appeared in Le Carré’s early thrillers only as a peripheral character, later fleshed out for Tinker, Tailor. His cult now transcends both the book and the original TV series.
The film is about the old guard, the pre-war generation (the hats are a give-away); its about patriarchy, old school tie, friends and debts. All dues are paid to Guinness, his signature black gloves and glasses are passed on to Oldman. But we can’t just keep on watching re-runs of the TV series. The new film places the action firmly in the past, but just as firmly in the ‘now’ with Oldman, Firth and Cumberbatch now running the show; we are reminded that espionage, corruption, distrust and austerity were not just a 70s thing.