There are formidable problems with filming Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: the novel is lengthy, intricately-plotted, beloved by fans of its author, John le Carré, and already had a celebrated 1979 BBC television adaptation starring none other than Alec Guinness a.k.a. Obi-Wan Kenobi. The former issues aside, Guinness’ performance alone was so spot-on that le Carré began depicting his master spy George Smiley, in subsequent novels, as resembling Alec Guinness. When it was announced that Gary Oldman would be taking-on the Smiley role, concerns about his bull-in-a-china-shop acting style were justifiably raised. Fortunately for fans of the novels, and BBC adaptation, Gary Oldman completely transforms himself for this role and the ever determined, always inscrutable, George Smiley returns to the screen in yet another remarkable production.
The Gary Oldman most readers are accustomed to is an over-the-top savage of a performer; chewing scenery, loudly shouting his lines and passionately burning through every moment of his screen time. His role in Leon: The Professional as an evil, amyl nitrate sniffing, cop-on-the-take is probably the prime example of his early work. Unfortunately, over time, many critics and audiences ceased to appreciate his unique presence and, over the course of several bombs, Oldman lost his leading-man status. Lesson learned, Oldman fought to tame his internal beasts and has revived his career playing subtler, recurring roles in franchises like Harry Potter and the Nolan brothers’ Batman reboot. With that in mind, no performance could be more subtle, or career-changing for Oldman, than George Smiley the protagonist of a series of le Carré novels about Cold War-era British Intelligence.
Viewers looking for Bond-like action or a simple plot may not appreciate Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Director Thomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) respects his audience’s intelligence and eschews cheap thrills at every opportunity. The result is a character driven film peppered with moments of striking cinematic brilliance – including one scene with an owl that will resonate with viewers long after they leave the theater. The film’s plot remains mostly faithful to the original text: Control, the head of British Intelligence a.k.a. The Circus, suspects a highly placed mole is feeding vital information to the Soviets. He sends Jim Prideaux, a competent spy, on a mission to discover the identity of the traitor. Somehow Prideaux’s mission is compromised and he is shot and captured. Control is forced to resign in disgrace and in doing so his number two man, George Smiley, is forced to resign too. This forced retirement is brief for Smiley who is brought back into the spy game by Lacon, a civil servant, who suspects Control’s mole suspicions were indeed correct. Lacon requests Smiley privately investigate the leadership of The Circus and determine who the mole is.
Control is played by the always brilliant John Hurt who portrays the spy chief as a paranoid, angry man unwilling to compromise with those in his organization whom he deems to be intellectually lesser and careless. Control and Smiley clearly have a shared bond as natural, brilliant operatives whose innate talents shame those around them. The rest of the cast is made-up of the cream of the crop of current British male actors: Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones and Benedict Cumberbatch. Emotion is considered weakness amongst this group of covert operatives and therefore these actors are given a limited palate of expression for their characters. Watching these talents work within those emotional restrictions is something to behold – creased brows, nervous ticks and compressed intensity. Only Tom Hardy’s Ricki Tarr is allowed to emote and he truly becomes the heart of the film. Tarr is a blunt instrument for The Circus – a low level spy used to dirty work with little reward. Unfortunately Tarr falls in love and as a result he is betrayed by his own agency and he cracks under the pressure. When he finally spills his tragic story to Smiley, Tarr shakes uncontrollably and looks like a man broken. Tom Hardy plays the lead villain, Bane, in the forthcoming The Dark Knight Rises and his performance in films like Bronson and here in Tinker Tailor… solidifies the sound judgment behind that casting. Few could, or would want to, follow Heath Ledger’s Joker but it seems Tom Hardy may be more than up to the task.
Ultimately Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy lives or dies by Gary Oldman’s performance. For many the pacing and intricacy of the plot will undermine a thorough examination of Oldman’s work. This is unfortunate because Oldman, who had been most often seen waving his arms and shouting at full volume, becomes a character whose entire emotional range exists at the corners of his mouth and in the way he grips a banister. This is a true transformation and worthy of the same praise heaped upon the likes of Robert De Niro, Cate Blanchett and Daniel Day-Lewis. Complaints about the film are minimal: Ciaran Hinds is tragically underused here and given far too little screen time to make his normal impression. Also, the condensed plot causes some of the novel’s more interesting twists to be lost. All things considered these are minor complaints though and the fact that Alfredson was able to pull off a film this seamless from such an overabundance of material is a testament to his talent. For anyone looking to see an interesting, challenging, brilliant film this weekend, it doesn’t get better than Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Rating 4.5/5 stars