Thrills, spills, spies and some surprise castings

Colin Firth as Bill Haydon, David Denick as Toby Esterhase,  Toby Jones as Percy Allenine & John Hurt as Control in TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY  Photo: Jack English  All rights reserved. �'© 2010 StudioCanal SA [Credit must be included on all uses]

Colin Firth as Bill Haydon, David Denick as Toby Esterhase, Toby Jones as Percy Allenine & John Hurt as Control in TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY Photo: Jack English All rights reserved. �'© 2010 StudioCanal SA [Credit must be included on all uses]

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EVEN John Le Carre has said he wondered at first if we really needed a movie version of his most famous novel which was adapted so memorably for a TV series back in 1979 starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley.

If this version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Cert 15) doesn’t actually answer that question, it’s still an enjoyable and engrossing couple of hours and proves that spy thrillers don’t need car chases and shoot-outs (of which there are only two or three).

The surprise casting of Gary Oldman as Smiley proves a masterstroke. The actor best known for shouty scary roles is a marvellously inscrutable figure in his Robin Day glasses (which he doesn’t remove even when swimming).

After being ousted from the service along with his boss Control (John Hurt) after a clandestine mission to Budapest goes disastrously wrong, Smiley is recruited to make a secret investigation to uncover a suspected mole working for the Russians in the high echelons of MI6.

With the assistance of upright young agent Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and old special branch man Mendel (Roger Lloyd Pack) he sifts through evidence to find the “rotten apple”. The suspects are suave public school type Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), ill-tempered Scotsman Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), gruff Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) and Hungarian émigré Toby Esterhase (David Dencik).

The film makes a successful job of condensing the novel into two hours – or “cramming an elephant into a phonebox” as Gary Oldman put it - though some of the incidentals in the plot have gone by the wayside and some characters are quite sketchy. But it doesn’t feel like anything significant has been left out.

Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, who made the vampire movie, Let the Right One In, brings a similar chill to his vision of London in 1974. We are used to the dull brown décor and costumes and terrible haircuts from anything set in the Seventies but here we also get dingy rooms, creaking and cluttered, and George Formby is still being played on the radio. Not disimilar to our notion of Moscow in fact.

Even in the days of the Cold War when the TV series was so hugely popular, you couldn’t help think that MI6, the CIA and the KGB were playing some kind of game between themselves with their own special language ( “the Circus, ” “Control,” etc) and filling all these files with stuff that had little connection with the real world.

We have become used to Spooks dashing around dealing with terrorist threats. And yet on David Cameron’s trip to Moscow this week the case of murdered former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko was on the agenda, providing a reminder that the world of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy may not be quite so remote as we think.

French director Celine Sciamma’s Tomboy (Cert U) is a sweet tale of growing pains and gender confusion.

Zoe Heran is 10-year-old Laure who moves with her parents and six-year-old sister to a new home on the outskirts of Paris. Keen to hang out with the other children who live in the apartment complex, tomboy Laure tells them her name is Mikael and everyone assumes she is a boy.

The film makes a slow start and those viewers who may not be enamoured with child talk may become impatient but once it goes outside and focuses on the interaction between the children it gets into its stride. Real tension develops as Laure/Mikael has to go to increasing lengths to preserve the secret – along with some moments of comedy.

As a crush develops between Mikael and a girl called Lisa, you begin to have mixed feelings about what began as an innocent ruse and wonder how on earth it can resolve itself. The inevitable fall-out causes hurt all round, but the film manages to end on a hopeful note.