Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. And how Mark Strong broke me…


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Child free and with a bottle of French fizz open, the Husband and I decided to give TTSS a go on Thursday evening. Having no interruptions in the form of small people was definitely a benefit; the French fizz not so much, as you  need to concentrate on this film. As a result, I’ve been giving  it  a second viewing, especially the key scenes.

Based on John le Carre’s novel, the broad plot is that, after a bungled operation in Hungary where an undercover agent is shot, presumed dead, the head of ‘the Circus’ (MI-6), nicknamed ‘Control’ and played with understated elegance by John Hurt, is fired. His right hand man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), who is close to retirement, is called away from his rather bleak future of Surbiton semi and serially unfaithful wife, to work out what happened during the failed mission and, more worryingly, to root out a top level mole in the Circus, upon whose information the disastrous events occurred. This mole could be one of four men, who meet regularly around a wooden table in a soundproofed room in what could laughingly be described as the heart of London. After Control’s demise, Smiley discovers that his former boss has named these four men Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and Poor Man. The film plays out Smiley’s investigation and eventual discovery of the mole, with a B-line plot concerning a maverick agent in Turkey (Tom Hardy) who is trying to get a Russian informant to defect, until it turns out that the defector’s wife is in possession of far more important information, and, eventually, takes the maverick agent’s heart, too. At the end of two hours, everyone has lost something, the mole is discovered and, frustratingly, nothing much changes at the top level, even though the lives of the men involved have been irrevocably altered.

If you start watching TTSS with the expectation of something akin to James Bond, you’ll wonder what the hell you chose it for after about half an hour. If, however, you want a film that is sumptuous in its sparse design, minimalist in its dialogue, achingly sorrowful in its portrayal of the empty, frustrated lives of the men at the top of ‘the Circus’, that will leave you thinking for days afterwards, then this is it. This is the kind of film where the audience is put in the role of voyeur; we see conversations taking place through windows, sequences played out between the stair rods, from behind pillars. We are spying on the spies, and, when you notice that directorial conceit, it can get frustrating. I think, however, that this frustration is all part of the film’s design and intention. We want to know more, to see more of the characters onscreen, but we as an audience are denied this. We want to be in the room, but, much like the characters themselves, we are only privy to snapshots of information; no-one really ever knows the whole story.

This obstruction of the full picture plays out across the film, but there are several pivotal, character driven moments that caught my eye. And believe me, this is a stellar cast, so every moment is well worth it. The first is when Smiley’s assistant, Peter Guillam is forced to end his relationship in the light of his own subterfuge with the documents needed to flush out the mole. Benedict Cumberbatch, dressed mainly in 1970s suits that are so bad not even he can pull them off, says very few words, but, when he breaks down in a scene that the audience once again sees through a window, he epitomises the tragedy of a spy’s life in the TTSS universe. That momentary lack of control, lasting for a mere few seconds, is all consuming.


Similarly, the final three minutes of this film spell out what we have been drip fed throughout; the betrayal of country that the mole orchestrated also had a devastating effect on the personal lives of the men involved. Mark Strong’s Jim Prideaux, who has survived being shot, abducted, tortured, and relocated back to Britain to the bleakest possible setting (a middling boys’ school in the back end of beyond where he lives in a caravan on site), finally discovers that the perpetrator of his demise is someone who means absolutely everything to him. Strong is so painfully vulnerable in this film; that perfect mix of ruthless agent on the surface and tortured heart underneath, that the final scenes tear the audience’s  hearts out. During the flashback to the office Christmas party, where Prideaux locks eyes with a knowing  Haydon (Colin Firth), the off angle shot highlights the utter, utter yearning in Prideaux’s eyes, that desire to be recognised by the other man, before he goes off to meet his fate in Hungary.

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Firth also plays it beautifully; the audience, knowing from the commencement of this scene that Prideaux’s fate is to be betrayed, also knows that there will be no touching renunciation scene to follow, and, indeed, after Prideaux’s flash of hope when their eyes meet, when Haydon turns away with a knowing grin, Prideaux’s heartbreak is palpable.


Haydon knows Prideaux would go to the grave for him, and, ultimately, he uses this to his advantage in the main setup of the film. Kathy Burke’s brief role as Connie, another of Control’s people who has been unfairly booted out, refers to Prideaux and Haydon as ‘the inseparables’ in her early conversation with Smiley (where she also drops the deadpan line about feeling ‘seriously underfucked’, one of the few darkly comic moments of the film), which tells the audience all we need to know about Prideaux and Haydon’s relationship, although we don’t necessarily grasp the significance of this at the time.


Of course, the exact nature of Prideaux and Haydon’s relationship is left mildly ambiguous onscreen; as with so much of this film, it’s what you don’t see and hear that counts. Is it merely a deep and mutual comradeship, born of years of working and schooling together, or is it something more? And if it is something more, is Prideaux’s love for Haydon unrequited, or were their feelings mutual? Given the runup to the closing scene, where a distraught Haydon is unburdening himself, finally, to Smiley once he’s been put into a detention centre, I’m inclined to believe it was mutual, but then I’m not one to ignore a reading like this, as you well know. My understanding is that le Carre left no such ambiguity, as can be seen from the quote at the top of this blog post.

And so, after the Christmas party montage, we get to the final scene, where Prideaux exacts his own justice on Haydon. In one of the most arresting moments of the film, Prideaux shoots Haydon with a sniper rifle; the bullet wound leaving a teardrop trail on Haydon’s cheek as he goes down. In a beautiful mirror of the moment, Prideaux himself sheds a tear as he kills the man who meant so much to him. And this is where Mark Strong broke me. He has the most expressive eyes, and manages to communicate so much without speaking. It left me aching for a happy ending, even though there could never possibly be one.

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At the risk of ending on a very cheesy note, Ronan Keating had a great line in one of his songs that sums up the sheer power of this film; ‘you say it best when you say nothing at all’. Indeed, the silences, the words that hang in the air between the characters, screaming to be heard, are the most powerful ones. And I think I will ship Firth/Strong for the rest of my days. Time for a rewatch of Kingsman, I think…

The beautiful gifs in this post were found here: https://outlawsins.wordpress.com/tag/m-tinker-tailor-soldier-spy/

Fancy a romantic read? I’ve got a few to choose from…click the pic to be taken to my author page on Amazon!


4 thoughts on “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. And how Mark Strong broke me…

    • It is a dark sort of mocking – the same reason they all sing the Anthem of The Soviet Union – and why all them present know all the words in Russian. It’s why Father Christmas shows up wearing a Lenin mask. It’s because they are used to living spartan, almost Socialist lives, deprived of all luxury, comfort, aesthetic beauty. Their cluttered, awkwardly-laid-out staff canteen is only one more feature of that austere life – like the file room, like the dark alley of the auto-repair shop, like the cold lake where lonely old men wade and paddle as a morning constitutional, like every other aspect of Britain that’s shown in the least-romantic, least-optimistic light. They would not have had their holiday party in a cheery banquetting hall, not just due to a directorial conceit, but because the characters themselves don’t expect any better. In this way they all acknowledge they are no better off than are the communist Soviets they’re vying against.

  1. Think outside the box–they’re all outside the box–they’re spies. It’s a holiday celebration with an enormous punch bowl filled with, as Control complains: ‘monkey piss…’ They ‘re all toasted in the tradition of 1960s ‘office parties’. So they ham it up with the Soviet national anthem, Lenin as Santa, etc. they’re challenging the other side, the nemesis. A spie’s take on cross dressing.

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