Film: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy
Those in America will have the benefit of watching this without the shadow of a masterly 1970s adaptation by the BBC clouding their vision. For many in Europe, Alec Guinness (he of Obi-Wan fame) had turned in the definitive portrayal of John Le Carré’s fabled spy creation George Smiley, so much so that even a respected and versatile actor such as Gary Oldman had his work cut out. Oldman has, however, proved a reliable and deserving choice for the part, turning in an outstanding performance worthy of Academy recognition (and all and any other recognition going) in the New Year. It’s still quite flabbergasting to think that Oldman has never been honoured by the Academy. Not that the latter is a bastion of talent recognition (Chicago won a few Oscars after all), but Oldman’s an old-timer at this stage, an esteemed veteran, who deserves to be celebrated on the cinematic world stage for this defining performance.
His portrayal of the withered Smiley is the centre point of a shrewd and complex film that will demand much of your attention but deliver the utmost reward. Its labyrinthine plot may not suit everyone, as even after seeing the film twice and having read the book I must confess certain events don’t always add up for me. Case in point, there’s a scene in which Smiley twigs something pivotal, its significance illustrated by the literal shifting of rail tracks into place on film, but exactly how he comes to this sudden realisation has bypassed me completely three times now. Yet, this is not to imply that it’s impossible to follow. Little details may not always be overtly discernible onscreen, but just as Smiley delves headlong into a web of intrigue and suspicion so the viewer – if they stay on their toes – will follow him as he makes the various connections that flush out the leak.
For those unfamiliar with the book, the story involves retired agent George Smiley being recruited to discover a mole within the Circus (British Intelligence). It’s the 1970s, the Cold War is still an icily everyday presence, and the mole is working for the Soviets. Times are a-changing within the Circus, with more and more ground and prominence being lost to the U.S. intelligence network, and this is unaided by an opening monologue in which an undercover mission involving Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) goes disastrously wrong. Head honcho Control (John Hurt) had initially sought out Prideaux to unearth the mole, but in the wake of the Budapest mission he is forced out and later dies. It is in the wake of his death that Smiley, who was forcibly retired at the same time, is tasked with weeding out the Soviet plant from Control’s list of suspects – the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier of the title and another dubbed Poorman. These codenames correspond to new head of the Circus Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), his deputy Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), and associates Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) respectively.
The film is directed by Swedish Let the Right One In helmer Tomas Alfredson and his attention to detail is striking. The film succeeds in recreating the drab, murky world of its 70s setting perfectly, the cinematography suitably washed out with everything seemingly filtered through a layer of dust. The tension and paranoia fostered by the Soviet rivalry is palpable, with the colourless palette acting as a dark reminder of the mood that pervaded Britain at the time. In the midst of this shady world, the mostly English cast (Hinds is Northern Irish; Dencik Swedish) are uniformly superb. Alongside the outstanding Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch – a longstanding veteran of stage and small screen and known to many as TV’s Sherlock – is exquisite as Peter Guillam, head of the ‘Scalphunting’ Division, and Smiley’s aide and legman. He’s the one who gets to sneakily scour old files and smuggle documentation out of the Circus in the more traditional spy thriller vein, though it’s not without a price as one particularly affecting scene illustrates. Dencik and Jones are both gleefully repellent as the sour, smug Machiavellian types while Firth – so oft-noted for playing good guys in bad places – plays delightfully against type as a smirking adulterer. Hinds is underused, Strong is twitchy and haunted, and Tom Hardy makes a brief appearance as Ricky Tarr – a brutish legman whose revelations kick Smiley’s investigation into motion.
The film is not without fault, though these can be attributed to the difficulties of condensing such a complex book. Its pacing is sluggish and the dreariness depicted onscreen may infect the viewers if they do not engage with it. Anyone expecting espionage, chases, and executions should steer clear – glimpses of conflict are limited and even the revelation of the mole himself is something of an anti-climax. This is a thinking man’s piece, as much about Smiley’s resilient character and the private pain of his failed marriage as it is about a double agent. However, if you are open and alert to its charms, it will blow you away in the most understated and beautiful of ways. It’s a sumptuous and largely faithful rendering of a compelling novel, a rare treat for the mind, and a testament to its cast’s skills. It’s sometimes grim, but always gripping, and will get under your skin in a challenging and resolute way rarely seen in modern cinema. A contemporary classic.
Review written by: Grace Duffy