“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (Starring Gary Oldman)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

Directed by:  Tomas Alfredson
Written by:  Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan
Cast:  Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, Kathy Burke, David Dencik

A film of admirable intelligence and complexity, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” arrived during a movie season that already featured unconventional successes like “The Artist”, as well as controversial and demanding efforts like Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” and Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life”.

It almost makes one believe that cinema, after spending decades in the thrall of big opening weekends, franchise films and overblown fantasies, was finally maturing and diversifying, offering movie-goers a wider range of flicks to choose from, including offerings that could, conceivably, be called works of true genius…and art.

…and then it’s announced that Michael Bay has signed on for a new “Transformers” film.

Dear God.

But with this review I seek to praise cinema, not bury it.  Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s Cold War spy novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is faithful, without being overtly slavish to the original, atmospheric, fully realized and thoroughly entertaining.  Much has been made, especially by American critics, of the “cerebral” nature of the movie—it’s “slow-moving”, viewers have to really pay attention to the plot, etc. When audiences have to be warned that a mainstream movie might be too smart for them, you know civilization is teetering on the precipice.  Have we reached such a nadir in our culture that films which are the least bit challenging carry the equivalent of warning labels?

Full marks to all involved in the conception and production of “Tinker, Tailor…”.  They refused to dummy down the material and while some of the subplots and various episodes from the book have been pared back (or removed), Le Carré fans will rejoice at everything that has been retained and, in some instances, enhanced.

When I read that there was to be a new version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I reacted, as many people did, with skepticism and bemusement.  Why bother? The 1979 BBC mini-series, directed by John Irvin and starring the adroitly cast Alec Guinness, was absolutely definitive—what was the point of a remake?  And Gary Oldman as Smiley? Gary Oldman? Surely he was too young, his acting style too intense to portray the repressed, brilliant spy, betrayed by his colleagues and cuckolded by his wife.  It was hard to imagine anyone surpassing Guinness’ pitch perfect depiction of the sad, rumpled, little man, his gaze, by turns, inscrutable and wise behind thick-lensed glasses.

Oldman’s performance shows us a tougher, more formidable Smiley, possessing a ruthlessness that wasn’t nearly as evident in the TV series.  I think Oldman also brilliantly exposes the nuances and contradictions of Smiley’s character; he allows himself to manipulated and exploited by both Control (John Hurt) and his wayward wife, but when cold-blooded behavior is required, as in the scene where he confronts and browbeats Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Smiley is absolutely relentless.  I was frequently astonished by what Oldman was able to accomplish with a character tightly constrained by his introspective, passive nature. Smiley is not a man prone to emotional outbursts or scene-stealing histrionics and yet by employing body language (witness the marvelous vignette at the conclusion of the movie where Smiley sags, almost deflates when he sees his wife, a charged moment so subtle and yet so evocative, I actually gasped) and nearly imperceptible facial cues, we realize there are vast depths inside the man, powerful emotions carefully held in check.  Oldman has never been better.  Smiley will be one of the defining roles of his career.

But the supporting cast, made up of some of the finest character actors in Britain, gives him all the help he requires.  John Hurt is Control: prickly, intolerant, paranoid. Times are changing, the world is changing and Control, to his political masters, is yesterday’s man.  New blood is required, Control is on the way out…and he knows it.  And rages at the dying of the light. Colin Firth is excellent (as the seductive Bill Hayden), as are Kathy Burke (Connie Sachs) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Peter Guillam).  Ciaran Hinds (Roy Bland), Toby Jones (Percy Alleline) and Dencik round out the roster of players, ambitious bureaucrats allied against Smiley, determined to thwart or, at least, manage his efforts at uncovering the “mole” that Control and Smiley believe resides at the very heart of the Circus.

Tomas Alfredson, who had previously helmed the original (Swedish) version of the oddball vampire film “Let the Right One In”, was an unconventional choice as director but, in the final analysis, could anyone have done better?  Alfredson, clearly, had a magnificent grasp of the material and the dark, almost sepulchral ambiance he imparts to the film is ideally suited to the byzantine Cold War machinations of intelligence agencies on both sides of the Iron Curtain.  Screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan presented him with a first rate script that neither condescends, nor confuses; it is a highly polished and literate undertaking and the duo richly deserve the plaudits they’ve received.  Tragically, Ms. O’Connor (married to Mr. Straughan) died while the film was in production.  “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is dedicated to her memory.

A worthy tribute indeed.

ΩΩΩΩ1/2  (Out of 5)

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About Cliff Burns

I'm a literary writer, specializing in slipstream/ alternative/surreal/science fiction. My influences include Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, David Cronenberg, Rene Magritte, any artist who defies convention and busts open genres, attacking the status quo.
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2 Responses to “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (Starring Gary Oldman)

  1. “When audiences have to be warned that a mainstream movie might be too smart for them, you know civilization is teetering on the precipice.” If I had a nickel for every time I heard that … and another nickel for every time I heard some halfwit Futurist carnival barker tell me “the Singularity is near,” I’d be able to pay off the deficit. Perhaps in the near future the sentient AIs will be able to cow idiotic humanity into something resembling organ farms. Who knows, those sentient AIs may come from the screenwriting programs and Netflix algorithms that do the heavy lifting for us. Where is Charlton Heston and John Huston-in-ape-costume when you need them?

    • Cliff Burns says:

      One always looks for signs of hope–I think the past decade has announced the arrival and/or rise of some fine directors whose heads aren’t stuffed full of popcorn and coke syrup. Plus there’s at least anecdotal evidence that audiences are growing weary of stupid rom-coms and CGI-fests–the success of a film like “The Artist” is, I think, persuasive.

      I just had a large molar out today and it could be that I’m merely experiencing residual effects of the anesthetic. But for the moment, at least, I feel some stirrings of optimism…

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