TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, 2011
Stars: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciarán Hinds, David Dencik
In the bleak days of the Cold War, espionage veteran George Smiley is forced from semi-retirement to uncover a Soviet agent within MI6's echelons.
It would be easy to sum up John Le Carré’s spy books, and thus the movies based on them, as the anti-James Bond. That’s not really fair to either as each attempted to please a different audience in a different way. But it’s not that far from the truth either – in the purest form of his work all of the bullets and blood happened off the page, leaving the rest of the story to the cerebral minders of agents and researchers in their warrens and the guilt they felt for what they did to themselves and others. At its best it was a more dimensional, more human look at the world of espionage.
So anyone looking for James Bond type thrills, however much the modern films have stuck their toe in the waters of ambiguity lately will have better luck elsewhere. Director Thomas Alfredson (“Let The Right One In”) has attempted one of the most faithful adaptions of ever of a Carré book, and chosen one of his masterpieces to do it with.
Some might already be familiar with the BBC version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” from the early ‘80s with the late Sir Alec Guinness in the title role. A portrayal so apt Carré himself gave up writing the character after seeing Guinness’ performance, stating that Smiley no longer belonged to him. It’s never fair to compare to different adaptations of the same material, particularly between two different mediums, and that is particularly true going from the character-centric world of television and the plot-centric world of film.
Fortunately you don’t have to as Alfredson has put his own stamp on this version and produced a piece of shadowy political thriller which easily stands on its own.
For those too young to remember both the nursery rhyme and the period it’s based in, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is set during the height of post-missile crisis Cold War paranoia in the 1970s. Everyone was by this point fairly certain no one was going to actually blow the world up, so the thrust and parry and been reduced to preparation for a tank offensive in Germany and intense espionage between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Which really means between the US and Russia, with Europe and in particular England, caught in the middle.
A fictionalization of the defection of British spymaster Kim Philby, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” finds the spies of Britain’s MI-6 facing the most terrifying prospect imaginable, a mole at the highest levels of the British Secret Service, able to feed Western intelligence to the Kremlin at will and maneuver out anyone who might be suspicious.
One of those suspicious persons sent into early retirement is aging spymaster George Smiley (Gary Oldman). Unfortunately for the Russian’s, this has put Smiley in the perfect position to begin a witch-hunt from the outside, a hunt for the man who destroyed his mentor’s (John Hurt) career, who ruined his marriage and who had one of the Service’s best men (Mark Strong) betrayed.
Though he doesn’t have the time a mini-series would allow to delve into his material one thing Alfredson does have on his side is money, allowing him the ability to create one of the lushest Carré adaptations to date. “Tinker Tailor” is a joy to look at it from beginning to end, with fantastic production design from the industrial paranoia interiors of the Circus (so named for the Secret Service’s old address on Piccadilly Circus) to the streets of Budapest and Istanbul where Smiley’s agents face the enemy in the field.
He also has a fantastic cast giving strong performances throughout, and none more so than Oldman. After his Sid and Nancy days Oldman was typecast for a very long time as the over the top madman, which is what makes it so pleasant to see what he can do with a character given layers and time and subtlety to work with. Just like the world he lives in Smiley is a conundrum, a man whose livelihood rests on understanding people but who has no idea how people work, particularly those closes to him. A titanic intellect that spends all of his time looking out at the world and not partaking in it. In Oldman’s hands you can see Smiley thinking, working through his problems, occasionally, painfully delving into his own past. As low key as some his early work was off the wall, Smiley will go down as one of his career bests.
Alfredson has helped himself to the cream of England’s current acting crop to back Oldman up; from his agents in the field (Strong, Tom Hardy) to the men he is investigating (Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Firth) down to the smallest part. In particular Benedict Cumberbatch impresses as Smiley’s number two who is slowly starting to learn what the cost of the job really is.
For anyone not familiar with le Carré, it must be said up front that “Tinker Tailor” is often agonizingly slow, which is odd for a two hour movie but also quite apt. It reflects the meticulous nature of its hero and keeps its focus entirely on what its characters are feeling rather than what they are doing. In fact most action sequences happen off screen and are only referred to later. Fans of more standard thrillers will find this sort of thing infuriating but if you put up with it there is a wealth of real drama waiting for you.
As with most adaptations the less familiar with any other version of the story you are the more you will like it. It’s very hard not to compare this new version to the book or the mini-series and see what was only hinted at but couldn’t find any room to exist. Older fans who look past that will find their own just rewards as well, particularly in Oldman’s performance, one of the best of his career.
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