The spy genre, is generally speaking, a euphemism for ‘action movie’ — look at the explosions, fistfights and car chases of the Bond films, of the ‘Mission: Impossible‘ series, of the ‘Bourne‘ franchise, none of which have much in the way of actual tradecraft. The business of being a spy is hard, boring work, made up of listening and talking and without a lot of glamor. One of the men who best understands this is novelist John Le Carré, himself a former spy, who for close to half a century has been behind some of the most acclaimed literary examples of the genre. But aside from the much-loved “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,” and the more recent “The Constant Gardener” (the latter not strictly speaking an espionage picture), his works haven’t had a huge amount of success on the big screen, lacking the speedboats and fireballs of Ian Fleming or Robert Ludlum.
One of the writer’s best-known books is “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” the first of the ‘Karla’ trilogy, which focuses on George Smiley, a middle-aged veteran of ‘The Circus’ (Le Carré’s term for the British intelligence services) and his rivalry with his Soviet counterpart Karla. Working Title Films has spent the last couple of years on a new cinematic take with Tomas Alfredson, director of the much-acclaimed “Let the Right One In,” making his English-language debut at the helm. It’s no small undertaking, considering that the novel was previously adapted as a much-loved, seven-part, 290-minute BBC miniseries, headed up by an indelible performance from the great Alec Guinness. Alfredson might have assembled an all-star cast of British talent to bring the book to life, but could the company, led by Gary Oldman taking up Smiley’s thick glasses, hope to match their predecessors? And could the film manage to keep the plot coherent and thrilling at a running time less than half of what the TV take had to play with?
Things are changing in the Circus in the mid 1970s. The generation that came up through the war are starting to be pushed out, with Control (John Hurt), the head of the service, being put out to pasture after a botched operation involving agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) in Hungary, and right hand man George Smiley (Oldman) is being forced out with him. But a rogue Circus man, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), resurfaces with the news that there is a Soviet mole in the upper echelons of the Circus. Civil servant Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) secretly brings Smiley back into the fold to root them out, and with his right-hand-man Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), they soon discover that the traitor is one of four men: new Circus chief Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), the charismatic Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Hungarian-born Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) and Alleline’s ally Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds).
Few films here at Venice had such high expectations beforehand, so it gives us great pleasure to report that “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is, on first viewing at least, incredibly rich and perfectly constructed, sitting with “The Conversation” and “The Ipcress File” in the very upper reaches of the genre. Alfredson appeared to be a major talent after “Let The Right One In,” and he exceeds his break-out here, never letting the style get in the way of the storytelling (as happened once or twice in the vampire film), while retaining an impeccable eye for period. The greys and browns that dominate the film — thanks to sterling work from DoP Hoyte van Hoytema — perfectly capture the grim days of 1970s Britain, and the attention to detail displayed is really quite extraordinary, every set and backdrop adding texture to the action; production designer Maria Durkovic gets a big gold star (we’d also be remiss if we didn’t mention Alberto Iglesias‘ brilliant score, which does a great deal in terms of keeping the tension up). Alfredson revels in the analogue quality enabled by the setting, lingering on details of paper and tape in a computer-free world.
He’s also clearly an astonishing director of actors, virtually every member of the cast getting at least one substantial moment to shine, right down to the day-players (“Downton Abbey” star Laura Carmichael gets across an ocean of longing in one short scene, for instance). We can’t remember the last time that Oldman put in such strong work as he does here. His eyes magnified by the giant eyewear, he’s a buttoned-down, repressed type, but with only the tiniest shift in the face, he can show a man shattered by betrayal, while still giving a certain cold professional: when he has to deceive an ally or hang an asset out to dry, he does so without blinking. The scene where he discusses meeting his adversary Karla, and what another character calls his ‘blind spot’ of his unfaithful wife (smartly kept from the camera by Alfredson, her face never glimpsed), is a something of a masterclass. But it’s also a tremendously generous performance. It would have been easy for Smiley to dominate, as grey and background-hugging as he could be, but Oldman is a great listener here, clearly loving and respecting his colleagues enough to let them match him punch-by-punch.
Everyone’s strong, but some parts have more room to breathe than others. Kathy Burke, far too long absent from screens, has a lovely, flirty cameo as a colleague of Smiley’s thrown out by the new regime, and aching for the days of “a real war. Englishmen could be proud then” (the dying embers of empire seems to be one of Alfredson’s principal concerns here, showing an England uneasy with its place as second fiddle to the United States). Colin Firth has the most fun of anyone as the flamboyant, witty Haydon, while Mark Strong is heartbreaking as his best friend Prideaux, hopefully demonstrating to studio types that he’s capable of a far greater range than he’s mostly played so far — watch the way that his eyes light up as he spots Firth at a party.
We’re virtually past the point of having to say that Tom Hardy is brilliant in a film, but brilliant he is, and once more showing new strings to his bow; soft and vulnerable, deeply wounded by being shut out by his employers, he couldn’t be more different to his other turn of the moment as the brutal, turned inward brawler in “Warrior.” More of a breakout is Benedict Cumberbatch, until now best known for his starring role as the BBC’s “Sherlock.” He’s a total professional, willing to walk through fire for Smiley, but there’s a simmering anger in his performance, a slow build of paranoia as he’s asked to turn against his masters. It’s a beautifully layered turn, considering his public persona as a flirt and a playboy, something that pays off beautifully in a quietly devastating scene, one that may be prove controversial to die-hard fans of the book.
It’s also a key scene; Alfredson’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is more than anything else a film about betrayal. Betrayal of country, betrayal of friends, betrayal of colleagues, of lovers, of those who’ve asked to trust you, of ideals, of promise, of self. And the director doesn’t shy from showing the brutal consequences of this betrayal, whether emotional or physical — those who’ve seen his previous film might not be surprised by the beautiful/brutal punch of the gore (including one particularly lovely moment right at the end), but it won’t shrink the impact.
There are hiccups, including one nifty, but strangely Harry Potter-esque moment with Mark Strong and a flaming owl. More notably, as remarkable a job as Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor have done in adapting the script (the film is dedicated to the latter, who sadly passed away last year, soon after filming began), something had to give, and a few cast members get less attention than others, most notably Ciarán Hinds, a wonderful actor who has almost nothing to do here; presumably there’s material on a cutting room floor somewhere. We also wonder how it’ll play for U.S. audiences and critics — it’s an uncompromisingly British film, albeit with a little European flare from Alfredson and his collaborators, and the repression of the characters may leave feeling that it’s emotionally chilly; the heartbreak’s all in there, but it’s mostly in the subtext.
But this writer was thrilled and occasionally moved from the first frame to the inspired closing montage (scored, unexpectedly and brilliantly, to a Julio Iglesias version of “La Mer”), and we suspect that there’ll be more ‘treasure’ (as the spies call the prospect of top-notch intelligence) to come one future viewings as well. [A]