Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy ***1/2
I don’t read spy novels, and I tend not to seek out spy movies. I do seek out Bond movies, but they’re not about a spy, they’re about a stylish, sexy superhero. There’s nothing sexy or superheroic about George Smiley, Gary Oldman’s character in this very faithful adaptation of John Le Carré’s massively enduring novel, but there is style galore in Oldman’s performance, and in this film, directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In). It features stunning – indeed, breathtaking – period production design, cinematography (Hoyte Van Hoytema), original music (Alberto Iglesias) and casting. If it wasn’t so difficult to follow, it would be a contender for film of the year.
This is why it’s important to note that I don’t read spy novels. I suspect people who do will find this film much easier to follow than I did. And I suspect people that love the underlying novel (and many, many people do) will love this adaptation, as it feels nothing if not authentic (needless to say I have not read the book). There are many quirky, intriguing details that feel that they must have come from the book. (Indeed, from reading reviews by a couple of others who have read the book, I understand there is only a single scene in the film that is not directly from its pages).
Will you enjoy the film if, like me, it oftentimes confounds and confuses you? I did. The mood and tone of the film are impeccably and thrillingly realised. I loved reveling in the sheer strangeness of the weird world of British spies during the Cold War, even during the many bits in which I had no idea what they were talking about. The (almost entirely male) cast are superb. John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Stephen Graham and Simon McBurney all obviously read the book with great attention, because it’s obvious that they’re all telling the same story, even as that story may occasionally float above the audience’s head. They’re all excellent, and committed, and collectively do something that’s quite difficult – pretend to do a job (spying) that, by its very nature, is not open to being understood by anyone other than those who do it.
Of course, the really important character is George Smiley, and Gary Oldman plays him perfectly. It is a deeply unflashy role – indeed, for the first three quarters of the movie, Smiley has barely any screen time and barely any dialogue. He’s investigating a mystery, and, as such, he’s a listener, and Alfredson and his editor Dino Jonsater do the Hollywood-unthinkable thing of constantly favouring those doing the talking rather than Oldman doing the listening (I would warrant that Cumberbatch, Strong and Hardy have more screen time and more dialogue than Oldman – over the course of the entire film). But Smiley is the hero, and comes powerfully into his own as the film moves towards its climax. I am certain that Oldman’s nomination for Best Actor at the Academy Awards this year has much more to do with a recognition of his entire career (remarkably, he has never been nominated for an Oscar before this), because the role of Smiley simply isn’t an attention-grabber. Still, reserved, quiet, Smiley’s success comes from doing his job in a way that absolutely does not call attention to itself. Oldman has been brave enough to portray Smiley appropriately, to his great credit, and his restraint perfectly matches Alfredson’s cool, methodical approach to such cold, hard material.
The world created by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is astonishingly rich. It is a slow, deliberate movie, and if the machinations of Cold War espionage leave you cold, the movie probably will as well. Or maybe, like me, you’ll love it anyway, for its precision, style, and sheer, undeniable class.