I love a good spy movie. Name a big screen espionage series – James Bond, Jason Bourne, Mission: Impossible, Kingsmen – and chances are, I’m a fan. But the thing about all these franchises (even the grittier ones) is that they’re built around escapist thrills… and sometimes, I hanker for something a bit more “real”.
I’m talking about flicks that’re less about blowing away bad guys and bedding gorgeous women, and more about the unglamorous legwork and moral quandaries. Y’know: the kind of stuff that characterises the actual secret agent trade.
That’s where Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy comes in. This adaptation of John le Carré’s classic novel – which arrived in cinemas five years ago this month – is the perfect antidote to the power fantasy bullshit peddled by Bond, Bourne and the rest. Over the course of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy‘s 127 minute runtime, director Tomas Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan deconstruct the entire genre with ruthless precision, culminating in the film’s brilliant, subversive closing montage.
To celebrate Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy‘s anniversary, let’s take a closer look at how Alfredson, O’Connor and Straughan used the film’s final moments to perfectly skewer every spy movie trope imaginable.
What happens in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy‘s closing montage?
To recap, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy follows the efforts of veteran intelligence operative George Smiley (Gary Oldman) to uncover a mole within the upper echelons of the British Secret Service (nicknamed “The Circus”) during the height of the Cold War. After a lengthy investigation that tests his intellectual and emotional reserves to their limits, Smiley uncovers the turncoat: Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), the deputy head of The Circus.
The ending montage kicks in shortly after this shocking revelation, and offers a snapshot of what happens next:
- Haydon is shot and killed while in custody by Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), his closest friend, whom he set-up to be captured and tortured by the Soviets
- field agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) wanders the streets in the rain, still haunted by the fallout of what he’s witnessed over the course of the film
- retired Circus analyst Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke) peers morosely out the window of her lonely home, and
- Smiley’s estranged wife Ann returns, and he is elevated to head of the Circus.
Now, none of this sounds all that compelling (except maybe the shooting), but what these vignettes represent and how they’re executed is truly special.
Of course, the first thing you’ll notice about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy‘s final montage is its soundtrack. In a stroke of genius, Alfredson and composer Alberto Iglesias set this sequence to a live cover of French song “La Mer” by Julio Iglesias (no relation to Alberto). Chosen because the filmmakers believed Smiley would play it when alone, the track’s upbeat, romantic qualities juxtapose brilliantly with the on-screen imagery. As Alfredson observed, the song epitomises “everything the world of MI6 isn’t.”
He’s right, too – because unlike James Bond, the characters in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy aren’t romantic figures, and the lives they lead are very far indeed from upbeat.
Humans doing inhuman work
Take Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux, whose vignette embodies the most crushing theme at the heart of le Carré’s novel: the disconnect between human spies and their inhuman work, which has no room for loyalty, trust or love.
Alfredson, O’Connor and Straughan cleverly kick-off the montage with a flashback to a Christmas party years earlier, where we see these best friends – possibly lovers (both book and film are intentionally ambiguous on the subject, although it’s strongly suggested) – share a brief, tender moment.
Masters of their craft, Firth and Strong convey a deep, unspoken affection between their two characters with only the slightest facial expressions and shifts in body language. The smiles and intense gazes they exchange speak so much louder than any words could, and when Prideaux starts to rise to his feet, only for Haydon to abruptly turn and exit the room, the heartache etched on Prideaux’s face hits us hard.
As Prideaux’s face hardens, we shift to him calmly marching along the outskirts of the military compound where, years later, Haydon is being held. This transition is vital, as it gives us an emotional entry point into the unseen moment Prideaux first realised he’d been betrayed by the person he loved most.
It’s interesting to note that Strong’s movements are very unlike the typical cinema spy. There’s no sign of the dramatic, cat-like stealth employed by a 00 agent; it’s the no-nonsense trudge of a career soldier, and this extends to the workman-like way Strong has Prideaux raise his rife.
But what’s really important in this moment is, once again, the unspoken interplay between these two men. Haydon, glumly looking out at the countryside surrounding his quarters, appears to notice something; at the same time, Prideaux lowers his weapon and stares wistfully at his target – echoing the moment the pair shared all those years ago at the Christmas Party – before cocking the rifle in his hands.
With the sound of silenced gunfire, a small hole is gouged into Haydon’s cheek, just below his eye. That the wound leaking down his cheek evokes a tear is hardly subtle, however, it’s still an oddly moving visual, particularly as it mirrors the actual tear marking Prideaux’s face. It also masterfully communicates the inner turmoil raging within poor Jim Prideaux, who – as Smiley comes to understand in the book – ignored his suspicions about Haydon to his downfall, and hints at similar emotions within Haydon.
Crucially, we’re never totally sure whether Haydon saw Prideaux outside the compound – essentially allowing himself to be killed. This is another wise move by Alfredson, O’Connor and Straughan, as it leaves Haydon’s true feelings (like his relationship with Prideaux) tantalisingly undefined.
The spy game is anything but fun for the people who play it
From here, we cut to Tarr and then Sachs, and the filmmakers proceed to double-down on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy‘s core theme even further.
One look at Tarr and Sach’s despondent faces is all we need to understand that these are sad, lonely people. They’re individuals drawn to spy work due to certain natural talents they possess, only to be eventually burnt out by it.
Both are a far cry from the confident, fulfilled secret agents of the Bond and Mission: Impossible franchises. Tarr is filled with regret now that his efforts on Smiley’s behalf have led to the murder of the woman he loved, and Sachs is consigned to live out her remaining years in bleak, companionless solitude.
The shot of Haydon’s dead body that follows – face down in the dirt and leaves – only serves to underscore this point, hammering home the harsh reality of the oft-glamourized spy game.
George Smiley: the anti-Bond
All of which leads us neatly to Smiley, who is arguably the least impressive protagonist to ever headline a spy movie. Unlike the charming and handsome Bond – known for effortlessly wooing, banging and discarding an endless string of women – Smiley is forever being cuckolded by his beautiful, uncaring wife, Ann, to whom he is nevertheless utterly devoted.
Watch as Smiley discovers that the unseen Ann – who remains as aloof to us as she is to her husband – has returned to him, how he pathetically steadies himself on the staircase banister before approaching her. It’s a small yet exceptionally insightful window into just who George Smiley is: an unremarkable (albeit clever) man who is only truly secure and in control within the cloak and dagger realm of his profession.
This appraisal of Smiley’s true nature is confirmed in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy‘s final frames, when he returns to the Circus to claim the top job. Here, Smiley’s confident stride is the polar opposite of his awkward shuffle when engaging his wife. As he enters the main meeting room – silently acknowledging protégé Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) along the way – and sits in the Chief’s seat, his supremely confident body language and facial expression crystallise that here (and here alone) is where George Smiley feels comfortable and adequate.
The applause that greets Smiley as he settles himself on his new throne is a cute touch (and comes courtesy of the live “La Mer” recording), but it also adds a layer of irony – and honesty. Sure, this is ostensibly a victory for Smiley and the “good guys”, yet they’re all still fundamentally damaged people doomed to lead broken, unsatisfying lives.
And, ultimately, it’s the brutal truth underpinning its ending – about both real world intelligence operatives and their idealised fictional counterparts – that makes Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy such a standout within the spy movie genre.