Dir:- Tomas Alfredson
Starr:- Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, Kathy Burke, John Hurt
Within two films Swedish director Tomas Alfredson has managed to establish a unique visual aesthetic that is perfectly suited to detailing the post-war brutalist architecture of Northern European town- and cityscapes. In both Let the Right One In and now this cinematic adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Alfredson manages to work wonders with a muted visual palette that belongs to the frozen north and the very heart of winter. Everything about this latest reworking of Le Carré’s supreme cold war spy novel is glacial, mannered and almost entirely frigid. This gives the film a peculiar quality that is partly distant, reserved and unengaging, and partly textured, ingenuous and entirely fascinating.
Gary Oldman steps into the substantial brogues of Alec Guinness, as the chillingly remote spymaster George Smiley. It is a remarkable performance from Oldman, amongst his very best. For almost twenty minutes at the start of the film Oldman doesn’t utter a word. Questions are asked of him, opinions are given to him, but seemingly nothing can provoke him to form a single syllable. When at last he does engage in conversation it is stilted, awkward and perfunctory, as if to suggest that the words spoken are being shared very much against his will. One of the first scenes involving Oldman sees him go to an opticians to get his glasses prescription checked. It is behind these large, two-tone (black & clear) frames that the most active and mobile area of his face is hidden, in plain sight. Alfredson does a remarkable job of capturing the coolly considering gaze of Smiley, who is destined to become one of cinema’s great watchers (in the same way Harry Caul has become one of its great listeners). Many sequences feature Smiley isolated in a dimly lit, drably furnished interior (a bleak 70’s grimness seems to permeate every aspect of the movie), inscrutably considering or apprehending something either internalised, or occurring off camera. Smiley is a physical blank, a ghost-like figure, an enigma, who seems utterly removed from all around him and yet entirely unremarkable. It is in Oldman’s impressive stillness that the real strengths of this movie lie.
With over three decades having passed since the original British television adaptation of the novel, it is understandable that a cinematic rendering be made, if only to introduce the work to a new generation of cinemagoers and potential readers. However, this ignores the fact that the original novel was never really at its strongest in the thriller elements that propelled the plot forward. Le Carré always has been a master plotter, with an ingenious ability for cutting to the very quick of a character’s predicament. Yet in his best writing the convoluted narratives are merely a superficial framework under which the recent history of power is explored. Alfredson wisely focuses this adaptation on recreating in minute detail the look and feel of the cold war 70’s reality, with a particularly strong recreation of UK period detail (from Bell’s Whisky adverts to flock wallpaper). By focusing upon the minutiae it converts the film from a spy-thriller in The Bourne Identity or Day of the Jackal mode, into a kind of museum exhibit or meticulously presented diorama.
This is not to say the film is lacking in tension. In an incredibly intricate opening sequence, that takes place in Budapest, Mark Strong’s Jim Prideaux is assigned to a covert operation by Control (an absurdly craggy John Hurt, who increasingly has the appearance of granite). Prideaux’s task is to bring in a Hungarian general who may help to identify a mole within MI6. The sequence in question occurs around a coffee table in a shopping arcade and is filmed with the mixture of long shots and close-ups that is normally beloved of Western gunfights, whilst being edited with the rapidly escalating hysteria of a horror movie. It is one of two moments in the film where a genuine element of shock punctures through the otherwise heavily insulated, seemingly numbed, existences of the those in the intelligence services. Later Prideaux, during an interrogation, is confronted with a person that he doesn’t know, but whom the audience is all too aware of. On informing his captors that he does not recognise this person, the individual has their brains blown all over the wall that stands in front of Prideaux’s chair. Both of these sequences gain strength directly from Alfredson’s decision to dwell upon the deadening mundanity and low-level, all-pervasive paranoia that informs life at the sharp end of the intelligence services. This really isn’t anything like the world of James Bond.
There are some resemblances between Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the HBO mini-series The Company (with Chris O’Donnell, Alfred Molina, Michael Keaton and Alessandro Nivola). Both productions deal with the periods after the Kim Philby scandal and the breakdown in Anglo-American intelligence services co-operation. They also highlight the aching routine and alienating mistrust that make the intelligence services such a horrendous vocation. The staggering loneliness of so many of the characters in both productions is profound. Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has to deal with the fact that his wife conducts an affair behind his back. Rather than confront her with his knowledge of the affair, he simply absorbs the pain of this realisation and focuses back upon his work. Another character, called Ricki Tarr (an excellent turn from the exciting Tom Hardy), manages to break protocol to try to protect a woman that he has fallen in love with, but only serves to have this woman inadvertently embroiled in the shadowy counter-espionage tactics of the mole. Whilst, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch, who reunites with Hardy for the first time since the immense TV drama Stuart A Life Backwards) is forced to prioritise his career over his homosexuality, breaking up with his live-in lover to prevent the powers that be from wielding any leverage over him. All of the fractured and empty lives that intersect around ‘the Circus’ (the codename for MI6’s headquarters, which are wonderfully photographed throughout, so that they resemble an alien structure entirely cut-off from the surrounding city) create a symphony of melancholy in the final third of the movie, that is given a direct emotional resonance denied the rest of the film, through the use of a repeated flashback to a work party where the tiniest of human gestures (a wry smirk, a gentle wave, a muffled whisper) serve to pierce through the impossible exterior of people like Smiley.
Finally, another noteworthy aspect of the film is its casting. This is an extraordinarily strong line-up of talent that effectively sees some of the grandees of the British acting establishment (Hurt, Oldman, Firth and Hinds) rub shoulders with some of the very best up-and-coming talents (Cumberbatch, Hardy and Stephen Graham). In many ways the film can be seen as a passing of the baton, from one generation of talent to the next. It is a cast of unparalleled strength and depth, which although heavily weighted in terms of male roles, still manages to find a delightful supporting turn for the seemingly forgotten talents of Kathy Burke (who I’m sure Oldman fought to have on the project). Oldman and Burke have an easy rapport and their scene midway through the film is one of the rare moments of comedic lightness. The rest of this impressive, monolithic adaptation enjoys the sensation of being mired down in the harsher, coarser realities of a politically and socially frozen decade, that took no prisoners.