Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (film)

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For the TV miniseries based on the novel, see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (miniseries).
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Produced by Tim Bevan
Eric Fellner
Robyn Slovo
Screenplay by Bridget O'Connor
Peter Straughan
Based on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 
by John le Carré
Starring Gary Oldman
Kathy Burke
Benedict Cumberbatch
David Dencik
Colin Firth
Stephen Graham
Tom Hardy
Ciarán Hinds
John Hurt
Toby Jones
Simon McBurney
Mark Strong
Roger Lloyd-Pack
Music by Alberto Iglesias
Cinematography Hoyte van Hoytema
Edited by Dino Jonsäter
Karla Films
Paradis Films
Kinowelt Filmproduktion
Working Title
Distributed by Focus Features
Release dates
  • 5 September 2011 (2011-09-05) (Venice Film Festival)
  • 16 September 2011 (2011-09-16) (United Kingdom)
Running time
127 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget $21 million
Box office $80,630,608[1]

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a 2011 Cold War espionage film directed by Tomas Alfredson. The screenplay was written by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan, based on John le Carré's 1974 novel of the same name. The film, starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley, along with Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Ciarán Hinds, is set in London in the early 1970s and follows the hunt for a Soviet double agent at the top of the British secret service.

The film was produced through the British company Working Title Films and financed by France's StudioCanal. It premiered in competition at the 68th Venice International Film Festival. It was a critical and commercial success, and was the highest-grossing film at the British box office for three consecutive weeks. The film also received three Academy Awards nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, and for Oldman, Best Actor.

The novel had previously been adapted into the award-winning BBC TV miniseries Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979).


In October 1973, Control, head of British intelligence ("the Circus"), sends Jim Prideaux to Budapest to meet a Hungarian general. Prideaux is shot and captured. Amid the international incident that follows, Control and his right-hand man George Smiley are forced into retirement.

Sir Percy Alleline becomes the new Chief, with Bill Haydon as his deputy, and Roy Bland and Toby Esterhase as key lieutenants. Despite Control and Smiley's misgivings, their successors had already begun a secret operation - "Witchcraft" - to obtain Soviet intelligence, which is being exchanged with the CIA for US intelligence.

Smiley is brought out of retirement by Oliver Lacon, the civil servant in charge of intelligence, to investigate a claim by Ricki Tarr, a British spy thought to have defected, that there has been a long-term mole in a senior role in the Circus. Control had suspected this, as well. Smiley chooses Peter Guillam and retired Special Branch officer Mendel to help him. He interviews Connie Sachs, who was sacked by Alleline after deducing that Alexei Polyakov, a Soviet cultural attaché in London, was a spy.

Tarr tells Smiley that, on a mission to Istanbul, he had had an affair with Irina, a Soviet agent. She wanted to reveal the name of a mole in the top ranks of the Circus in exchange for a new life in the West. Tarr reported this to London, but the reply, several hours later, ignored the request and ordered him straight home. He went into hiding after being accused of defecting and of murdering the British station chief. Smiley sends Guillam to steal the Circus logbook for the night Tarr called: he finds the pages for that night are cut out, suggesting that Tarr's story is true.

Smiley interviews Prideaux, who after brutal interrogation was exchanged by the Soviets but sacked from the service. Prideaux says the purpose of the mission to Hungary was to get the name of the mole. Control had codenamed the suspects "Tinker" (Alleline), "Tailor" (Haydon), "Soldier" (Bland), "Poorman" (Esterhase), and "Beggarman" (Smiley himself). "Sailor" was omitted from the nursery rhyme canon as it sounded too much like Tailor, should a poor communications link be used to return the information.

Smiley learns that Alleline, Haydon, Bland, and Esterhase have been meeting Polyakov — the "Witchcraft" source — at a safe house, where Polyakov gives them supposedly high-grade Soviet intelligence in exchange for low-grade British material, to help him maintain his cover with the Soviets. However, the mole is passing substantive material, including US intelligence, to Polyakov, his handler, whilst Polyakov's material has just enough substance to persuade the CIA to share information with the British.

Smiley has Tarr appear at the Paris office, implying he knows who the mole is. The mole meets Polyakov at the safe house, where Smiley arrests him. The mole is Haydon. The Circus plans to exchange Haydon with the Soviets, but Prideaux, having learned of Haydon's whereabouts, kills him, partly because of his betrayal, and partly because of their great friendship, including that they were once lovers, thus sparing Haydon further pain. Smiley returns to the Circus as its chief.




The project was initiated by Peter Morgan when he wrote a draft of the screenplay, which he offered to Working Title Films to produce. Morgan dropped out as the writer for personal reasons but still served as an executive producer.[2] Following Morgan's departure as writer, Working Title hired Peter Straughan and his wife, Bridget O'Connor, to redraft the script. Park Chan-wook considered directing the film, but ultimately turned it down.[3] Tomas Alfredson was confirmed to direct on 9 July 2009. The production is his first English language film.[4][5] The film was backed financially by France's StudioCanal and had a budget corresponding to $21 million.[6] The film is dedicated to O'Connor, who died of cancer during production.


The director cast Gary Oldman in the role of George Smiley, and described the actor as having "a great face" and "the quiet intensity and intelligence that's needed". Many actors were connected to the other roles at various points, but only days before filming started, Oldman was still the only lead actor who officially had been contracted.[7] David Thewlis was in talks for a role early on.[8] Michael Fassbender was in talks at one point to star as Ricki Tarr, but the shooting schedule conflicted with his work on X-Men: First Class; Tom Hardy was cast instead.[9] On 17 September 2010, Mark Strong was confirmed to have joined the cast.[10] Jared Harris was cast but had to drop out because of scheduling conflicts with Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows; he was replaced by Toby Jones.[11] John le Carré appears in a cameo as a guest in a party scene.[12]


Blythe House, the exterior of "The Circus"
The Párizsi Udvar in Budapest, the setting for the Hungarian café scene.

Principal photography took place between 7 October and 22 December 2010.[13] Studio scenes were shot at a former army barracks in Mill Hill, North London.[6] Blythe House in Kensington Olympia, West London, was used as the exterior for "The Circus."[14] The interior hall of Budapest's Párizsi Udvar served as the location for the café scene, in which Jim Prideaux is shot.[15] Empress Coach Works in Haggerston was used as the location for the Merlin safe house. Other scenes were filmed on Hampstead Heath and in Hampstead Ponds, where Smiley is shown swimming, and in the physics department of Imperial College London. The exterior shots of the Islay Hotel, a run-down hotel described in the film as being near Liverpool Street station, which Smiley uses as a base, were shot in Wilkin Street, London NW5.[citation needed]

The events which take place in Czechoslovakia in the novel were moved to Hungary, because of the country's 20% rebate for film productions. The teams filmed in Budapest for five days. Right before Christmas, the team also filmed in Istanbul for nine days.[6] The production reunited Alfredson with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and editor Dino Jonsäter, with whom he had made his previous film, Let the Right One In.[16]


The film took six months to edit. The final song in the film, Julio Iglesias' rendition of the French song "La Mer", set against a visual montage of various characters and subplots being resolved as Smiley strides into Circus headquarters to assume command, was chosen because it was something the team thought George Smiley would listen to when he was alone; Alfredson described the song as "everything that the world of MI6 isn't". A scene where Smiley listens to the song was filmed, but eventually cut to avoid giving it too much significance.[17][18]

Heard at a Circus office party, sung along to by the guests, is "The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World", composed by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, and performed by Sammy Davis, Jr., from the British spy spoof, Licensed to Kill (1965).


Gary Oldman at the Venice Film Festival for the premiere of the film

The film premiered in competition at the 68th Venice International Film Festival on 5 September 2011.[19] StudioCanal UK distributed the film in the United Kingdom, where it was released on 16 September 2011.[20] The US rights were acquired by Universal Pictures, which have a permanent first-look deal with Working Title, and they passed the rights to their subsidiary Focus Features. Focus planned to give the film a wide release in the United States on 9 December 2011 but pushed it to January 2012, when it was given an 800 screen release.[21]

Critical response[edit]

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy received generally positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes sampled 206 reviewers and judged 83% of the reviews to be positive. The site summarised the film as "a dense puzzle of anxiety, paranoia, and espionage that director Tomas Alfredson pieces together with utmost skill".[22] Metacritic, which assigns a normalised rating in the 0–100 range based on reviews from top mainstream critics, calculated an average score of 85 based on 42 reviews.[23]

Jonathan Romney of The Independent wrote, "The script is a brilliant feat of condensation and restructuring: writers Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O'Connor realise the novel is overtly about information and its flow, and reshape its daunting complexity to highlight that".[24] David Gritten of The Daily Telegraph declared the film "a triumph" and gave it a five star rating,[25] as did his colleague, Sukhdev Sandhu.[26] Stateside, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote, "As Alfredson directs the expert script by Peter Straughan and Bridget O'Connor, the film emerges as a tale of loneliness and desperation among men who can never disclose their secret hearts, even to themselves. It's easily one of the year's best films."[27] M. Enois Duarte of High-Def Digest also praised the film as a "brilliant display of drama, mystery and suspense, one which regards its audience with intelligence".[28]

Detractors of the film included Peter Hitchens of The Mail on Sunday, who wrote that the plot would be too baffling for viewers who had not read the book, and that the film's makers had "needlessly messed it up".[29] David Edwards of the Daily Mirror wrote, "The big question – and one le Carré himself asked when the film was announced – is whether such a hefty novel can fit comfortably into a feature-length production. In answering this, the writers have pared things back, meaning it's far pacier than the seven-part TV show. Unfortunately, the plot is every bit as bewildering with an overload of spy-speak, a few too many characters to keep track of and a final act that ends with a whimper, rather than a bang."[30] Writing in The Atlantic, le Carré admirer James Parker favourably contrasted Smiley with the James Bond franchise but found this Tinker, Tailor adaptation "problematic" compared to the 1979 BBC mini-series. He wrote: "To strip down or minimalize le Carré, however, is to sacrifice the almost Tolkienesque grain and depth of his created world: the decades-long backstory, the lingo, the arcana, the liturgical repetitions of names and functions".[31]

Box office[edit]

The film topped the British box office chart for three consecutive weeks[32] and earned $80,630,608 worldwide.[33]



While doing press for Working Title's Les Misérables (2012) film adaptation, producer Eric Fellner stated that fellow producer Tim Bevan was working with writer Straughan and director Alfredson on developing a sequel to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Fellner did not specify whether or not the sequel would be based on The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) or Smiley's People (1979), the two remaining Smiley novels in Le Carré's Karla Trilogy.[43]


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External links[edit]