Oscar season is officially on. Tomas Alfredson‘s searing adaptation of John le Carre’s classic spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is going to be one hell of a contender. It is an absolutely terrific film and is the very best we could hope for from the brilliant trailers and marketing we’ve seen. The trailers sold the film as a gripping, intelligent but challenging drama and this is exactly what we get. It really is a great pleasure to see the film in its entirety and to see it deliver on that promise for the entire runtime.
Set in 1973 during the height of the Cold War, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy concerns a secret agent of the Circus (codename for MI6) George Smiley (Gary Oldman). Initially, he is forced into retirement only to be thrust out of it by the government to hunt down a mole who is supposedly embedded right at the top of the Circus. With nothing to go on other than the suspicions of the former leader Control (John Hurt), Smiley hires a small but dedicated team to track down the leak, delving into the past to uncover the truth.
This is, of course, no ordinary spy film. It stays doggedly faithful to the story but changes the narrative structure of le Carre’s book into a more broken backed piece, flashing backwards and forwards in time to slowly reveal a truth which you never see coming. It’s a masterful technique placing us squarely in Smiley’s shoes, the audience is privy to the information as he receives it. Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan have intelligently devised the plot to keep us in the dark for the majority of the running time. So while the plot is at times difficult to understand, it is intentional.
In fact, it is a refreshing change that we are not given the dramatic irony which plagues most mystery thrillers. which in the end ultimately cuts out the intrigue of most mystery/spy thrillers. Like Christopher Nolan did with Inception, Tomas Alfredson expects the audience to keep up with the plot. You have to keep your mind focused on what is going on and at the climax of the film it is all made very clear.
Unlike Inception though, this is not a film for everyone. It is a story deeply rooted in the politics of the era, all the Cold War intrigue that is resting in the background requires a certain understanding of that era to fully gauge why some characters are following actions. It is also a slow burner, this is neither a Bond movie nor is it Spooks (MI-5), there are no action sequences or intense shootouts. It has the exotic locations but they are couched in rain and seemingly everlasting gloom.
This is entirely unglamorous, the grainy and oddly beautiful cinematography looks like it has been stained by cigarette smoke, the look and feel is very evocative. The film does have an underlying tension but relies on the impending sense of dread which hangs over Smiley’s entire investigation built up nicely by a brooding score from Alberto Iglesias and some very understated acting from a terrific cast.
And what a cast it is. It is basically the cream of the crop of top British character actors, all of whom could easily play a lead role yet are shifted into supporting parts. Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Hurt, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, Mark Strong and Tom Hardy all are utterly brilliant.
Clearly they all know they have an extraordinary piece of work on their hands and pull out all the stops to give some excellent performances. Cumberbatch, Firth and Hurt (in a bizarrely small role) in particular are very good.
Cumberbatch is on the brink of super stardom. His role as Peter Guillam, who works for Smiley and is the only person Smiley can trust, proves that he can hold his weight and deal with subject matter that is intense and complex and really hold his own against true acting giants.
But the film is crowned by Gary Oldman. Just give the man the Oscar now. This is one of his finest performances in years, probably his finest ever. It is deliberately a performance of understatement, or as Oldman puts it a “sitting down part”.
It’s also one of his quietest roles, he is present from the very opening of the film but doesn’t say anything for the first 15 minutes. He is stoic and a man beaten, Oldman has taken a lot of the description from le Carre’s book about Smiley and had that in his mind whilst crafting the character.
He’s completely brushed away the shadow of Alec Guinness, who of course previously portrayed Smiley in BBC TV adaptation. Despite his deliberately quiet and measured manner, there is a violence behind Smiley that you feel could crack at any moment but crucially doesn’t. He’s a lot nastier and colder than Guinness was, and there isn’t much of the usual grandstanding from Oldman either.
There is one moment where Oldman is allowed to do a scene, which will undoubtedly feature in awards ceremonies, where he basically rein acts an interrogation by himself. It’s a terrific moment but it is most certainly “acting” with a capital A. The scene is marvellously well acted and he does get away with it.
To sum it up, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of the best and most elegantly crafted films of the past five years. Rarely, if ever, does it take a step in the wrong direction. In a word it is pretty much perfect.
This, not The King’s Speech, is the British film that deserves all the accolades attention.