I love a good James Bond movie as much as the next person, but I think it’s safe to say that when it comes to depicting the world of espionage, Bond films are hardly realistic. Of course, the fantasy they present is part of their charm. For a far more realistic look at the world of spies and secrets, look no further than Tomas Alfredson’s remarkable adaptation of John Le Carre’s classic novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
It’s the early 1970s, and a British spy on an assignment in Hungary has been betrayed and shot. The ensuing fallout leads to the forced retirement of intelligence agency head Control (a wonderfully ravaged-looking John Hurt) and his best spy, George Smiley (Gary Oldman, whose performance I’ll rave more about in a moment). Control had been of the belief that a Russian mole had worked his way into the highest levels of British intelligence; this was dismissed as paranoia. But a year after the scandal, information surfaces showing that Control was right. During that time Control has died, so it’s up to Smiley to come out of his uneasy retirement and ferret out the mole – a task that must be kept secret as the mole is one of the agency’s four top-ranking leaders, men who have the power of life and death.
The good news is that there is no one better suited for this task than Smiley, precisely because he is the complete antithesis of a James Bond. In late middle age, he’s graying, bespectacled, paunchy, and quiet – the sort of man you would never notice if you saw him walking down the street. Even when he’s in conversation with people he fades into the background, and this gives him his power, for by providing silence he coaxes others to spill their secrets. He seems to be a pushover, and while he’s been forced into retirement and cuckolded by his wife, he has the tenacity and intelligence to find out secrets. He also has a master spy’s cold-bloodedness, as he’s willing to exploit others’ weaknesses for the greater good.
This wouldn’t seem to be a role well suited for Gary Oldman, particularly if one recalls his more over-the-top characters from Leon or True Romance. But it’s a masterpiece of subtle acting. At one point in the film there’s a reference to a code name of “Reptile” and that often sums up Smiley’s character and Oldman’s performance. Sitting still, saying little, not seeming to blink quite often enough, Smiley (and Oldman) exhibit a reptile’s perseverance and patience. Yet he’s not completely closed off, and Oldman lets Smiley’s humanity shine through in several key scenes, most notably in a flashback when he discovers his wife’s infidelity, and late in the movie when Smiley finally takes up a gun and Oldman conveys the seriousness of the matter and Smiley’s deep loathing of such measures.
But there’s much more to the film than Oldman’s performance. The screenplay has done a fine job adapting Le Carre’s novel. This holds true not just in condensing a complex, at times labyrinthine work into a two-hour film, but restructuring the story arc to suit a visual medium of storytelling. Some have complained of the film being hard to follow. Admittedly it is much easier to take in if you’ve read the book, but you should read the book anyway. In a way, the movie asks you to be something of a spy like Smiley, as you absorb details and make connections rather than having things pointed out to you. (I find it refreshing that a movie doesn’t ask you to leave your brain back at the concession stand.)
Director Tomas Alfredson, best known for making vampires interesting again with Let The Right One In, has put together an astounding cast of primarily British actors, even to the smallest roles, and everyone shines: Toby Jones, Colin Firth, and Ciaran Hinds as some of the top intelligence men; Tom Hardy as a field agent who gets proof of the Russian mole; Benedict Cumberbatch as an agent Smiley recruits to help find the mole; Mark Strong as a man with an unexpected connection to the proceedings; and Kathy Burke as a former intelligence worker who in a single scene helps dramatize the human cost of the manipulations and machinations we’ve seen.
Almost as much of a character is the film’s period setting. In the early 1970s so much of the technology we take for granted these days was undreamt of. Espionage in this time involves not digital information and satellite images but rotary dial phones, boxes and boxes of paper files, wiretaps, typewriters, and so on. It’s an analog fetishist’s dream. Likewise the sets and fashions are perfect capsules of the time without overdoing it; if nothing else, you come away from the film with a feeling that England at this time was a truly dreary place, gray and comfortless. It’s as if the Sixties were a fun party and now the country is suffering a bad hangover. Even the inside of the intelligence agency is drab, with even the most powerful of men conducting business in dingy cubbyholes.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a gripping story masterfully told on every level. If you want a movie that will not just entertain you but ask you to use your brain, go see it now.