Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (film)

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (film).png
British theatrical release poster
Directed byTomas Alfredson
Produced by
Written by
Based onTinker Tailor Soldier Spy
by John le Carré
Music byAlberto Iglesias
CinematographyHoyte van Hoytema
Edited byDino Jonsäter
Distributed by
  • StudioCanal (France and United Kingdom)
  • Kinowelt Filmverleih (Germany)[1]
Release date
  • 5 September 2011 (2011-09-05) (Venice Film Festival)
  • 16 September 2011 (2011-09-16) (United Kingdom)
Running time
127 minutes
  • United Kingdom
  • France
  • Germany
Budget$21 million
Box office$81.2 million[1]

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a 2011 Cold War spy thriller 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 stars Gary Oldman as George Smiley, with Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciarán Hinds, David Dencik and Kathy Burke supporting. It 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. A critical and commercial success, it was the highest-grossing film at the British box office for three consecutive weeks. It won the BAFTA Award for Best British Film. The film also received three Oscar nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, and for Oldman, Best Actor.

The novel had previously been adapted into the award-winning 1979 BBC television series of the same name with Alec Guinness playing the lead role of Smiley.


In 1973, "Control", head of British intelligence ("The Circus"), sends agent Jim Prideaux to Budapest to meet a prospective defector, a Hungarian Army general who has the name of a mole at the top of British Intelligence. Prideaux, realising the meeting is a trap, is shot as he tries to leave. Control and his right-hand man George Smiley are forced to retire following the botched assignment, and Control dies soon after.

Percy Alleline becomes the new Chief, Bill Haydon his deputy, and Roy Bland and Toby Esterhase his lieutenants. Civil servant Oliver Lacon grants Alleline and Bland budget approval for Operation "Witchcraft", including a safe house for their high-level Soviet source.

Former field agent Ricki Tarr contacts Lacon to warn that there has been a mole at the top of the Circus for years. Knowing that Control had the same theory, Lacon asks Smiley to use his outsider status to smoke out the mole. Smiley enlists the help of Tarr's boss Peter Guillam, who is still with the Service, and retired Special Branch officer George Mendel.

In Control's flat, Smiley and Guillam find materials related to the mole investigation. In a flashback, Smiley recalls a meeting of the Circus leadership. Alleline had disclosed supposedly high-value Soviet Intelligence, but, to Control's fury, refused to reveal the source except by the codename Witchcraft.

Smiley has Guillam review the personnel changes Alleline made after Control and Smiley were forced out. Smiley interviews analyst Connie Sachs, who had been dismissed by Alleline after she deduced that Soviet cultural attaché Alexei Polyakov was really a military officer and suspected he was setting up moles in foreign agencies. She shows Smiley a photograph of Jim Prideaux and Bill Haydon, calling them "the inseparables."

Smiley discovers a payment from the Circus to "Mr Ellis", an alias for the supposedly-deceased Prideaux, who is now teaching at a boarding school and living in a caravan.

Ricki Tarr unexpectedly arrives at Smiley's house and describes his assignment in Istanbul, where Soviet agent Irina wanted to exchange the identity of the mole in return for asylum. After Tarr alerted the Circus to Irina's offer, the local station chief was murdered and Irina abducted. Realising the mole had intercepted the message and fearing for his own life, Tarr went into hiding.

Smiley sends Guillam to steal the Circus logbook for the night Tarr contacted the Circus. Guillam obtains the book, but is unexpectedly brought before Circus leadership. Alleline tells Guillam that Tarr is a traitor, has recently been detected in Paris, and has been paid 30,000 pounds by someone anonymous. Guillam returns to Smiley, sees Tarr, and accuses him of being a double agent, repeating the information from Alleline. However, Smiley finds that the logbook pages for the night of Tarr's message have been removed, supporting Tarr's story.

Smiley tells Guillam of how, in 1955, he had met Moscow's spymaster Karla. Smiley urged Karla, then out of favour with his own side, to defect, begging him to "think of his wife". Karla had kept Smiley's lighter, engraved as a gift from his wife Ann, and returned to the USSR expecting to be executed. Too late, Smiley realised that he had revealed his own weak spot: his love for his wife.

Jerry Westerby, a former duty officer, recalls for Smiley the events from the night Prideaux was shot. The news sent Control into shock, prompting Westerby to call Smiley's home to leave a message with his wife. After Haydon arrived, he and Westerby wiped Prideaux's flat of anything related to his assignment. Guillam wonders how Haydon could have learned of the emergency so quickly, but Smiley tells him he was with Ann that night. In a flashback, Smiley recalls returning home to find a dishevelled Haydon sitting in his living room, and quietly concluding he was having an affair with Ann.

Smiley visits Prideaux, who says his Budapest mission was to relay the identity of the mole to Control via a code name: Tinker (Alleline), Tailor (Haydon), Soldier (Bland), Poorman (Esterhase), and Beggarman (Smiley). He was tortured by the KGB, with Karla shooting Irina in front of him and flaunting Smiley's lighter. He was eventually returned by the Soviets, but told by Esterhase that his career in intelligence was over.

Smiley meets with Lacon and the Minister, and informs them that the attache Polyakov is Witchcraft's emissary in London. Smiley notes that while Alleline, Haydon, Bland, and Esterhase have seemingly been exchanging low-grade British intelligence for the "gold" intelligence Polyakov provides, Polyakov's actual job is to receive valuable British and American intelligence from the mole. The information provided by Polyakov is trivial "glitter" devised by Karla, to lure the CIA into sharing intelligence with Britain, which the mole can then leak to Polyakov.

Guillam and Smiley take Esterhase to an airfield, where Smiley threatens to have him deported unless he reveals the safe house address. That evening Tarr visits the Paris station and contacts the London branch, claiming to have vital information for the Circus. As Smiley anticipated, Alleline, Haydon, Bland and Esterhase convene an emergency meeting. Smiley awaits the arrival of the mole at the safe house to alert Polyakov that Tarr is about to blow their cover. Guillam races in to find Smiley holding Bill Haydon at gunpoint.

Waiting to be traded to the Soviets, Haydon confirms that Prideaux told him about his mission to Hungary. Smiley deduces that Prideaux suspected Haydon, and told him of the operation to warn him, not expecting to be betrayed himself. Haydon reveals that Karla respects Smiley's abilities, and that he seduced Ann on Karla's orders to cloud Smiley's judgement. While still in custody, Haydon is shot dead by a tearful Prideaux. Smiley finds Ann has returned home, and returns to work as the new head of the Circus.




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 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.

Blythe House, the exterior of "The Circus"


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]

The Párizsi Udvar ("Paris Court") in Budapest, 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 ("Paris Court") 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 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]

Post-production and music[edit]

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). At the same office Christmas function, the Circus staff sing the official "State Anthem of the USSR", conducted by a figure dressed as Father Christmas but wearing a Lenin mask.[19]


Gary Oldman at the Venice International Film Festival for the premiere

The film premiered in competition at the 68th Venice International Film Festival on 5 September 2011.[20] StudioCanal UK distributed the film in the United Kingdom, where it was released on 16 September 2011.[21] The US rights were acquired by Universal Pictures, which owns 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.[22]

Critical response[edit]

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy received critical acclaim. Rotten Tomatoes reports an approval rating of 83% based on 229 reviews, with an average rating of 7.80/10. The site's critics' consensus states: "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a dense puzzle of anxiety, paranoia, and espionage that director Tomas Alfredson pieces together with utmost skill."[23] 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, indicating "universal acclaim".[24]

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".[25] David Gritten of The Daily Telegraph declared the film "a triumph" and gave it a five star rating,[26] as did his colleague, Sukhdev Sandhu.[27] 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."[28] 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".[29]

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 with 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".[30]

Keith Uhlich of Time Out New York named Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy the fourth-best film of 2011, calling it "a visually stunning adaptation with a stellar cast."[31] In 2020, Uhlich named it the ninth-best film of the 2010s.[32]

Box office[edit]

The film topped the British box office chart for three consecutive weeks[33] and earned $80,630,608 worldwide.[34]

Awards and honours[edit]

Possible sequel[edit]

While doing press for Working Title's Les Misérables 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 or Smiley's People, the two remaining Smiley novels in Le Carré's Karla trilogy.[45] While doing press for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014, Oldman stated that talk of a sequel, an adaptation of Smiley's People, had since disappeared; while also stressing that he would still like to see the film produced.[46]

In July 2016, Oldman said that a sequel was in its early stages stating, "There is a script, but I don't know when we will shoot."[47] It was reported at the time that a script based on Smiley's People had been "greenlit" by Working Title Films.[48]


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