Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Certificate: 15
Running time: 127 mins
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Hardy
Genre: Thriller
Format: DVD
Country: UK/France/Germany

Gary Oldman has spent the past decade in the peripheries of the field, always the supporting cast member or the Eastern European villain.  He’s been content with this role as he’s opted to be there for his children as they’ve growing up.  Now, with the duties of Fatherhood duly taken care of, he steps back into the frontline of cinema and into a role that was made famous by one of the greatest actors the UK has ever produced, Alec Guinness.  The role is George Smiley, occupation…spy.

It’s to the credit of director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) that when the adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel was announced rather than being met with the usual skepticism it was more of a feeling of admiration of the bravery required to even touch a project like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  The BBC had over five hours to adapt the novel, and did a wonderful job, Alfredson delivered the same in a little over two hours.  Le Carre’s work is not easy to adapt, Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold starring Richard Burton was one that was extremely faithful to the source material it was also quite difficult to follow and required multiple viewings in order to fully come to turns with the web spun by Smiley, Control and Alec Leamas (Burton).

Control (played by John Hurt) sends a man to Hungary in an attempt to find the identity of a deep cover Russian mole who’s working within “The Circus” (MI6).   When the operation hits troubled ground the old guard are shepherded out of the circus leaving Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) running his much treasured operation “Witchcraft” and a mole still at large.  The future of The Circle now rests in the hands and skills of the newly retired Smiley (Oldman) and a handful of trusted people.

There are few screenplays out there that are as brave as this.  This is an anti-spy spy film, modern audiences have been fed on the worlds of James Bond, Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer and as such have come to expect a certain level of thought to their spies mixed with a heavy amount of industry friendly term “high octane” action.  TTSS is not a film that will be much liked by the children of Bond.  In a world of updating and modernizing (The Bourne Identity was, after all, updated for the modern audience) it’s extremely brave for screenwriters O’Connor and Straughan to essentially write a period piece.  Braver still for them to attempt to bring the purity of the novel to a filmable screenplay.  The use of language is perfect, it’s the language of the Le Carre story, it’s the language of the classical British period of cinema complete with Eton to Oxford pronunciation and it’s perfect.  These were men who served, fought and survived the Second World War and understood the world through a level of civility that has become unfashionable in the modern thriller.  It would almost be beautiful if it wasn’t for the backdrop of the Cold War.

Alfredson’s direction is the real star of the piece (with regards to production) he has a masterful understanding, not just, of how to tell a tale but how to tell a difficult tale, a complex tale.  How to tell this tale.  His use of imagery and the juxtaposition of time lines, past and present allows him to avoid a lot of unnecessary and clunky exposition while skillfully guiding the audience through a minefield of cross and double cross, of lie and truth and all the grey areas in between.  It’s testament to the director that you are able to leave to film knowing exactly what has transpired without having to film the entire novel.  The camera’s discovery of knowledge is cleverly similar to that of film noir as it seems loyal to Smiley, it translates his memory to flashbacks, it follows him as he discovers key elements of the mystery and when it leaves his side it never learns more information (thus presenting it to the audience) than what Smiley already knows.  It is this device that allows the film to create the suspense it does and Alfredson uses it perfectly.

The use of sound in TTSS is soft, unintrusive almost dreamlike but with an edge.  Only on a couple of occasions does the sound become noticeable and on each occasion it’s outside of the UK.  This all adds to idea of the Englishman of 1973, the idea of George Smiley and what it means to be one of the old guard in a changing land.  It, like the screenplay, cinematography and the direction strikes the right note and adds another dimension to an already rich narrative.

To attempt to sum up the excellent performances in this film would be to go through each and every actor individually.  For the sake of time it’s perhaps handy to touch on a few key performers.  Mark Strong (as Jim Prideaux) gives his best performance since Syriana as he struggles to deal with life left behind and the emotional and physical pains of the world of The Circus.  His relationship with Bill is touching and echoes a friendship once had with another Bill (Bill Hayden played by Colin Firth).  Benedict Cumberbatch (Peter Guillam) showcases what has led Steven Moffatt (with Sherlock) and Danny Boyle (with Frankenstein in the West End) to his door.  Several of his keys scenes, and several others throughout the narrative, are played purely on his expressions and physicality and a genuine marvel to witness an inexperienced desk operative step into the shadowy world of the field.  Nervous, cautious yet level headed his face showcases a wealth of emotion.  Tom Hardy (Ricki Tarr) is phenomenal, it’s hardly any surprise, Hardy is always phenomenal.  Never the same in any two roles he is one of the most talented and watchable actors working at the moment and has nothing but an amazing future ahead of him.  He is Smiley’s mirror into the past, un-jaded due to inexperience he has the world ahead of him and years in The Circle, years that will either mold him into the perfect operative or mangle him up in the gears of the machine.  His romantic leaning towards the happy ending is endearing, if not flawed, and would be the stand out performance if it wasn’t for one man… Gary Oldman.  

Oldman has been on something of a career resurgence of late and his performance as George Smiley is the truest sign that the greatest actor never to have won an Oscar is back in the game full time and sharper than he has ever been.  His physicality in the role is amazing, it might sound an odd complement for a non physical spy but the way he cares himself in the film adds twenty years.  He is not the plump Smiley of Le Carre’s novel but is the underestimated hero with a mind sharper and more pragmatic than any other around him.  The scene in which George receives his new glasses highlights not how George sees the world but how the world sees George.  Oldman’s English gent is one in the twilight years of his career is a man in a changing world and becomes of great value due to his intelligence and experience yet is undermined.  Oldman’s ability to showcase the confidence of his knowledge while at the same time play a man unappreciated by his wife and in-laws is a shining example of an actor filled with the hunger expected in those half his age.  The film has many moments of Oldman sitting, thinking or remembering, actions that aren’t typically the thrilling moments of a thriller.  Oldman’s on screen presence draws you in and demands your attention to the point where staring at chess pieces becomes an immensely fascinating experience.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is without doubt one of the most intelligent and faithful thrillers ever adapted for the big screen, it’s also a beautifully shot, perfectly written and acted piece of cinema.  It’s an excellent example of how to hold an audience and is easily one of the best and smartest films of the year.


Dawniepants said...

Absolutely true. The stillness of the direction adds to what is essentially a visual cinematic game of chess, of moves and counters, reading the opposition and wondering what their next move will be. Will they ever take your queen? 'tell him to fuck off back to her majesty' indeed.
The moves to commence a strategy yet simultaneously Hide it in plain sight.

Visual chess.

Knight to king four indeed.

Ty said...

Good review! Looking forward to watching this.

Also great site you have here! Happy i found it. Just starting following you via blogger\google.

John Baxter said...

Thanks Ty, appreciate it. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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