Times (Sept 16, 2011, by Donald Clarke) - 5 stars
In adapting John le Carré’s peerless espionage novel, Tomas Alfredson...cannot hope to avoid comparisons with the BBC’s fine 1979 TV version... Stripping away most of le Carré’s gorgeously theatrical dialogue, Alfredson tells his absurdly complicated story through furtive glances, fetid images and clanking sound design. Alec Guinness’s incarnation of George Smiley, the aging spymaster in search of a double agent, was, despite his sombre aspect, the sort of chap who could still enjoy a brandy and ginger ale with an old pal.
Gary Oldman is an altogether more forbidding presence. With his downturned mouth and cracked voice, he seems to carry the weight of Britain’s postwar decline on his slumped shoulders. Alfredson has triumphantly proven that there is space for at least two, subtly contrasting versions of the same source material.
Anybody familiar with the novel would laugh at the notion that its plot could be summarised in the central paragraph of a modestly sized review (or in a feature film, for that matter). But we’ll try.
Following the public failure of a misguided mission in Hungary, an assorted cabal of high-ranking mandarins has deposed Control (John Hurt), the aging chief, and edged out Smiley, his loyal lieutenant. Everything appears to be progressing efficiently. A new source of intelligence is delivering such a rich supply of nuggets that the relevant minster feels able to begin trading information with the hitherto wary Americans.
Then a renegade operative, played with characteristic charisma by Tom Hardy, comes across an extraordinary story. A Russian contact tells him there is a mole at the top of British intelligence. Smiley is called in from retirement to discover which of his old buddies has been passing the crown jewels to Moscow Central. Is it dashing, sexually predatory Bill Haydon (Colin Firth)? Might it be the working-class, plain-speaking Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds)? What about the slippery, social-climbing Toby Esterhase (David Dencik)?
It’s probably not worth worrying too much about the answer to those questions. If the film has a problem it is that, forced to boil so many characters down into narrative stock cubes, the suspects’ personalities are only fleetingly sketched. The final revelation is less interesting than the gorgeously smooth mechanics of the investigation.
A glance at Let the Right One In will confirm that Alfredson is a master of atmosphere. In Tinker, Tailor , assisted by overdone-cabbage cinematography from Hoyte van Hoytema and an ironically jaunty score by Alberto Iglesias, he offers a version of the mid-1970s—the corruption in the intelligence community reflecting the decay in every other arm of the state—that seems to take place underwater (brackish, polluted water at that).
Every aspect of the film gestures towards oppression and impotence. Even the knotty complexity of the plot, brilliantly streamlined by scriptwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, comes across like a mass of hard homework that Smiley must finish before being sent back to some awful prep school.
We hardly need to reiterate the ancient qualification—dragged out continually since The Spy Who Came in from the Cold emerged nearly 50 years ago—that le Carré’s world has little in common with James Bond’s. We could go further. So solemn is Afredson’s film that it makes most previous versions of the author’s work look like Austin Powers.
None of which is meant as criticism. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy can, indeed, assert a serious claim to be the best espionage film ever made. Honestly.
Herald Scotland (Sept 18, 2011)
A chill wind blows through Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, an impeccable adaptation of John le Carré’s classic cold war novel.
Set in the 1970s, it recalls a time when a “war” of sorts was fought in secret, behind closed doors and through cryptic messages, without anything so messy as collateral damage; and it evokes an enclosed world of grey men, who have given all for Queen and country, but have perhaps forgotten why.
It’s a bold film, partly for going against the grain of contemporary, action-heavy spy films (aside from one superlative set-piece, this is decidedly low-key), partly because the novel is already represented on screen by one of the most lauded British TV dramas of all time. Made in 1979 and starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley, the series had the luxury of five hours in which to replicate le Carré’s intricate weave of intrigue and betrayal; therefore it would be churlish to overdo comparison. And in its own right, the film is top-notch, highbrow entertainment...
Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s last film was the vampire movie Let The Right One In. This has the same icy unease, which is entirely appropriate, though I wonder if he hasn’t turned the emotional temperature down too far—we don’t learn enough about the characters to care overmuch about the denouement.
The triumphs of the film are the production design (including the imaginative creation of Circus HQ and a series of fabulously awful wallpapers), and Oldman. As usual, our most chameleon of actors has disappeared into his role entirely. His George could be a bank manager, someone you wouldn’t look twice at on the street. But while his Establishment voice is honeyed, even soothing, the wry, cruel turn of the lip and watchful stillness suggest a man you really wouldn’t mess with.
Scotsman (Sept 11, 2011, by Siobhan Synnot) - 4 stars
Casting thin, visceral Gary Oldman as the spymaster in the new film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is...surprising...and yet, appropriately for a story full of corkscrewing twists, Oldman turns out to be a perfect fit, slotting easily into Le Carré's cold war drama....
I was a little too young to be captivated by the 1979 BBC TV version, but Swedish director Tomas Alfredson evokes both the austerity of the series and the battleship greyness of the 1970s, with its smoke-filled office spaces and sparsely vehicled streets. This is not a hi-tech cloak and dagger world, and there are no sky-jumps, casino jaunts or natty Savile Row suits, à la James Bond. The nearest we get to choreographed action is when Peter tries to steal files from the Intelligence racks—a sequence that is both witty and suspensefully executed.
Scriptwriters Peter Straughan and his late wife Bridget O'Connor prove inventive translators of Le Carriésm, at one point conjuring an entirely new scene—a Christmas party which neatly sketches the moods and dynamics in this college of misfits and outsiders. It also introduces Smiley's Achilles' heel: far from resembling 007's lothario spy, Smiley is a known cuckold, until recently tethered to his younger, faithless wife Ann.
The other woman in Smiley's life is Connie, played by Kathy Burke. Burke's appearances on-screen are now rare, and her brief cameo is terrific. She's also mysteriously living in communal accommodation with a bunch of students—a detail left unexplained until, presumably, they return to make Le Carré's Smiley's People. Or maybe not: "Don't come back if it's bad news" she shouts after Smiley. "I want to remember my boys the way they were."
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy assembles the best roster of British character actors since Harry Potter, all of whom seem to have had a rare time in the wig cupboard. Tom Hardy in particular plays roving spy Ricki Tarr with a shaggy blonde piece that threatens to secede and become its own state. But this is a madly atmospheric movie, requiring close attention throughout. Elusive and elliptical, it's a film about spies, but also the muted reckoning we all have to make when confronted with age, judgment and betrayal.
(Sept 17, 2011, by Philip French)
Directed by Tomas Alfredson...and adapted by the British husband and wife team, Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O'Connor, this is as lucid and accomplished a screen version of a long, complicated novel as I have seen....
The triumph of the movie is twofold. First, it takes the same story, shortens it, rearranges the order in which we are given the information, retains the book's tone and homoerotic undertones, makes the impact more visual and retains the rich ambivalences. Second, it gives us in Gary Oldman's performance an equally plausible Smiley, a tired, tested man, a quietly growling, canine figure, who physically resembles another, rather more glamorous British actor in the classical tradition, but also with a certain strain of sexual mystery—Michael Redgrave.
Demanding and rewarding the audience's attention, the film moves with an unforced briskness as it shows us a mission to Budapest going terribly wrong in the early 1970s. The shooting, arrest and torture of the British agent Jim Prideaux results in a shake-up at the Circus that includes the expulsion of the ageing head of MI6, Control (John Hurt), and of his right-hand man, Smiley. The novel's Czechoslovakia is replaced by Hungary. A more significant geographical change involves a threatened female Russian defector making her decision to jump ship in Turkey rather than Hong Kong....It's this event that triggers the search for a mole and a crafty government liaison figure sets Smiley the task of identifying which of five former colleagues is the traitor.
Each of the suspects is brought alive by the actors. Given the dingy, run-down London and the ambivalent cold war world of 1974 (which is actually not too far removed from our own self-deceiving, deeply dishonest times), each is as likely to have become a double-agent as anyone else, though for different reasons: self-advancement, a political choice of a historical kind, a desire to be on the winning side, a Machiavellian, Iago-like perversity.
Before his death, Control has given the eponymous nicknames to the suspects, attaching a photograph of each to a chess piece, and Smiley is the grandmaster who must play out this game against Karla, his manipulative opposite number in Moscow. Karla remains unseen, a felt absence as is Smiley's unfaithful wife, Ann. They represent allegiances and betrayals at the private and public levels.
In addition to the atmospheric cinematography and the spot-on period designs, there are numerous emblematic images that stick in the mind: a cigarette lighter; the use people make of their glasses; points changing on the railway lines outside the shabby hotel where Smiley has established his HQ. And music is cleverly worked into the action. There's a brilliantly staged Christmas party for workers at the Circus (at which le Carré makes a brief appearance), where the drunken revellers sing along to Sammy Davis Jr's "The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World" (theme song of the British movie Licensed to Kill, a 1965 Bond rip-off) and cheer as Santa Claus appears wearing a Lenin mask to the strains of the Soviet national anthem.
In retirement, the terminally sick patriot Control (of whom le Carré observes: "He hated everywhere except Surrey, the Circus and Lord's cricket ground") plays an LP of Jussi Björling singing the ultimate patriotic Swedish song "You Blessed Land" (a little joke of the director's here). There are also scenes linking dramatic strands through an old George Formby song on the radio and a jaunty version of Charles Trénet's "La Mer" by Julio Iglesias. These are both cheeky and daring, but then this is a movie that surprises and satisfies in unexpected and pleasing ways.
(Sept 15, 2011, by Sukhdev Sandhu) - 5 stars
Somebody should give Jina Jay, the casting director of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, an award. The much-heralded remake of John le Carré’s 1974 spy novel has, with apologies to fans of The Expendables, the best acting ensemble of any film in recent times. Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Simon McBurney, Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds are just a few of the first-rate performers who make this adaptation so completely absorbing and a more than worthy companion piece to the 1979 BBC serialisation.
Hats off, too, to the person who hired Tomas Alfredson as director....Tinker Tailor is a period piece that’s about mood as much as it is about drama. It’s strong on boredom, isolation, paranoia. Made by a Swede who is an outsider to the British class system, it’s unusually sensitive to the ways in which the Establishment represented by the intelligence services is itself filled with outsiders. As a result, this is an adaptation that’s less posh, less clubby than the television version. Like The Lives of Others and like much contemporary Romanian cinema, it looks back at the Cold War era—its cruelties and banalities—with a clear, cold eye....
Screenwriters Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor go out of their way to make sure that the Circus is far from being a gentleman’s private club. The agents, like poker players, are masters of bluff. They have to be. They’re in hiding from themselves, exiled from their passions, immersed in a loneliness that is almost existential. Even the rare smiles they exchange—at a Christmas party that features Santa Claus in a Lenin mask, and a marvellously unexpected disco version of La Mer by Julio Iglesias—never extend to their eyes.
Most solitary of all is Oldman’s Smiley. Le Carré described the character as “small, podgy, and at best middle-aged; he was by appearance one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth”. Oldman is slimmer, more seductive. More terse and less plummy than Guinness, he’s tight-lipped and non-assertive, almost to the point of disappearing. He has the air not only of someone who has been hurt very badly , but of someone who is now capable of quiet violence.
That quiet violence suffuses every frame of the film. So does an aura of post-imperial stagnation. Like Tony Grisoni and Julian Jarrold’s adaptation of David Peace’s novel Nineteen Seventy-Four, Alfredson captures the era’s smokiness, its grey-and-brown colour schemes, its dread density. Everywhere and everything—from the airless offices of the Circus to the cheeks of the operatives—has been drained of colour, as if society is in the early stages of rigor mortis.
It’s possible that this brooding, slow-burn approach to storytelling may seem old-fashioned to anyone weaned on the smart phones, satnav-tracking and the breathless chase sequences of modern espionage thrillers such as the Bourne or Mission: Impossible series. But it’s more faithful to le Carré’s novels, which are finely crafted explorations of the institutional and philosophical dimensions of the world of secret intelligence as much as they are mere whodunits.
In fact, even though Alfredson’s version is about three hours shorter than the 1979 series, it has a languid, meditative quality that aligns it with superior modern-day dramas on television, such as Wallander and The Killing. Is it a coincidence that these have a Scandinavian connection? What they have in common is an appreciation for the space between words, a belief that terseness has its own eloquence, and an appreciation for the uses of melancholy.
It’s rare to find these qualities in an English-language film. But then Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a rare film. I have some sympathy for the argument that the pay-off is a touch throwaway and that the mole’s reasons for his treachery are dealt with too briefly. Yet what Alfredson has achieved—bringing together an exemplary cast, pitch-perfect production design, subtle cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema, a finely-judged score by Alberto Iglesias—renders those concerns minor ones.
(Sept 15, 2011, by Peter Bradshaw) - 5 stars
...This is a skin-crawlingly atmospheric, uncompromisingly cerebral and austere account of John le Carré's cold war espionage novel, adapted for the screen by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O'Connor. Gary Oldman plays the melancholy agent George Smiley, brought out of his humiliating retirement and charged with rooting out a Soviet mole in the upper reaches of the secret service.
Could it be Alleline (Toby Jones), Haydon (Colin Firth), Bland (Ciarán Hinds), Estherhase (David Dencik)—or someone else? Like Michael Corleone contemplating Fredo's duplicity, Smiley's face is a mask of icy determination. He is also suppressing emotional agony. One of these men has betrayed him personally.
When the BBC television adaptation with Alec Guinness was on the air in 1979, this was contemporary drama. Now it's a 70s period piece. Distance lends yet more disenchantment to the view. We are miles away from Bond glamour: defeating the clearly defined bad guy, getting the girl, and so on. This is an arena of shabby compromises enacted by anxious middle-aged men who feel, to quote Kathy Burke's research agent Connie Sachs, "seriously under-fucked". It is a tatty, nasty, shabby and stiflingly male world of beige and grey, seen through a dreary particulate haze—fag-ash and dandruff. The interiors and government offices are lit with a pallid, headachey glow. Every room looks like a morgue, and the corpses are walking around, filling out chits, wearing ill-fitting suits, having whispered conversations, giving and receiving bollockings and worrying about loyalty.
The movie brilliantly conjures up the heavy weather of Le Carré's spy game: it involves nothing like derring-do, but a ritual of humiliation and a ballet of shame in which the security services play their part in managing decline and managing denial, and the Brit spooks try to rebuild their reputation with the Americans—the only people with secrets worth keeping—in their calamitous post-Philby world. Alfredson shows how the profession of secrets meshes with sexual shame, heterosexual and homosexual: perhaps because married womanisers and in-the-closet gay men are good at pretence and doublethink, and perhaps because they yearn for a world which makes a virtue of deceit....
The somnambulist gloom of Tinker, Tailor is animated by two chillingly realised setpieces: in one, an agent named Prideaux (Mark Strong) is summoned by the spy-chief Control, played by John Hurt, and ordered to go to Budapest where he is to bring in a Hungarian general who wants to come over to the west and reveal the mole's identity. His initial meeting with a third party at a far-from-innocuous cafe takes place in circumstances crackling with unease, an almost Truman Show theatre of paranoia. A droplet of sweat from the waiter's brow lands on the table, like the first sign of a thunderstorm. The meeting ends in calamity, and is to trigger the forced resignation of Control and Smiley, an unjust humiliation they accept like the good chaps they are.
The second setpiece takes place in Turkey, and involves the young hothead Ricki Tarr, played by Tom Hardy, the nearest thing this drama has to a Bond figure. Tarr is an other-ranks figure in his blue denim shirt, not a member of the Smiley officer class, spying on a louche military attache. Alfredson creates a tremendous Rear Window tableau of sex and violence in the distant lighted windows of grim apartment buildings. Romantically, in the middle of this bloodbath, Tarr is to fall in love with this man's beautiful wife Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova), who is in a position to give him far more important intelligence than the man he is following. At a crucial stage in the proceedings, Tarr promises to help Smiley, but makes him give a vital promise in return, and the consequent betrayal colours the drama with yet more dishonesty and bad faith.
This Tinker Tailor is a weightless, slo-mo nightmare taking place in what looks like an aquarium filled with poison gas instead of water: I found it more gripping and involving than any crash-bang action picture, and it is anchored by Gary Oldman's tragic mandarin, a variation on Alec Guinness which transfers the emphasis away from George Smiley's wounded feelings to his cool capacity for unconcern in the face of violence, a hint of a daredevil past, long mummified by bureaucratic self-control and a schoolmasterly scorn for his victim's weakness and disloyalty, while seeing how easily any agent could give the wretched Judas kiss. What a treat this film is, and what an unexpected thrill.
Independent (Sept 6, 2011, by Geoffrey Macnab) - 3 out of 5
The team behind the big screen version of John le Carré's spy novel have sought to head off unflattering comparisons with the celebrated 70's television version by publishing a statement from Le Carré himself calling the film "a triumph." Those comparisons will still be made. Several aspects of the movie are bound to grate with both Le Carré and Alec Guinness fans.
Thankfully, after a cumbersome start, Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor develops a momentum of its own. As they become more and more engrossed in Smiley's attempts to flush out the mole at the heart of the "Circus" (MI6), even the die-hards should just about forget about the looming spectre of Guinness.
The casting of the whippet-thin and athletic-looking Gary Oldman as aging spy George Smiley is (at least initially) disconcerting. The screenplay, by the late Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan, doesn't adhere to the chronology of the novel. Certain thematic elements are downplayed. For example, the film doesn't place as much emphasis on Smiley's absent wife, Ann, as either the novel or television series. Her cuckolding of him is still a key element of the plot but the film doesn't delve into the effect her treachery has on him. Apart from a few fleeting scenes with Russian agent Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova) and Smiley's encounter with his wise old former colleague Connie (played by Kathy Burke, star of Oldman's Nil By Mouth), this is a masculine affair. As if to underline the chauvinism at the British secret service, the filmmaker shows Women's Lib graffiti in the background.
Alfredson and his team have recreated the early 1970s in exemplary fashion. The cars, the sideburns, the thickness in the tie knots are all spot on. The London shown here is a grey, damp-looking place. As he showed in his horror film, Let The Right One In, Alfredson knows how to stoke up tension.
Here, it is the tiny details that often register the most strongly. After all, Smiley always notices the minutiae—a pair of shoes not put on properly by a lover almost caught in flagrante, the revealing looks and gestures of senior staff at a very raucous office Christmas party.
Oldman's performance grows on you. He has relatively little dialogue. His expression remains impassive throughout. He is a tall, thin man in a pale mac and glasses. He brings a dimension to the role that Guinness arguably missed. As he closes in on his quarry, he conveys a suppressed aggression and vengefulness that wasn't always there in the television series. His resentment at the shabby way his former boss "Control" (a barnstorming cameo from John Hurt) was treated and his contempt for the conceit and laziness of the new Circus bosses are obvious.
Whatever else, Tinker Tailor underlines the strength of British character acting. With limited screen time, Toby Jones (the ambitious Percy Allenine) and Colin Firth (the dashing Bill Haydon) give excellent performances. Younger actors such as Tom Hardy (as field agent Ricki Tarr) and Benedict Cumberbatch (as Smiley's acolyte Peter Guillam) lead the way in the film's few action sequences. Mark Strong brings gravitas and pathos to his role as the betrayed British agent, Jim Prideaux.
Alfredson's movie doesn't have richness and depth of characterisation of the Alec Guinness version, but once the hunt is afoot, this Smiley Redux turns into a rattling good spy yarn in its own right.
(Sept 5, 2011, by Leslie Felperin)
John Le Carre reportedly once said, "Seeing your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes." Maybe so, but in the case of helmer Tomas Alfredson's version of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," the result is best likened to a perfectly seasoned consomme. An inventive, meaty distillation of Le Carre's 1974 novel, pic turns hero George Smiley's hunt for a mole within Blighty's MI6 into an incisive examination of Cold War ethics, rich in both contempo resonance and elegiac melancholy. Finely hammered to appeal to discerning auds and kudo-awarding bodies, "Tinker" should do sterling biz.
...This version of "Tinker, Tailor" catches the newest wave of disillusionment and anxiety. It may be a period piece, right down to the slacks flared just so and the vintage wallpaper, but it feels painfully apt now to revisit the early-to-mid-1970s, when things were just about to fall apart.
Scripted with surgical economy by Peter Straughan and his late wife and sometime collaborator, Bridget O'Connor to fit a swiftly flowing 127 minutes, the plot reshuffles some of the novel's events, changes a few locales and invents a few scenes, but the essentials are all there. [...]
One of the pic's biggest departures from the source is to weave in flashbacks to a Christmas party, a scene that was never in the book. The party sequence efficiently reveals how Smiley learned about his wife Ann's infidelity, a crucial component in the theme of betrayal, and also sets an atmosphere and tone that makes this version of "Tinker, Tailor" feel fundamentally different from its predecessor: Under unglamorous strip lights redolent of '70s-era think tanks and the opposite of the gentlemen's club atmosphere of the TV series, the men and women who work for the Circus look more like the pasty nerds real Mi6 people probably were then (and maybe are now). They may hold the fate of the Western world in their hands, but many of them are outsiders to the regular establishment.
Seeing spies letting down their hair has a streak of absurdity about it that recalls helmer Alfredson's roots in comedy, evident in the breakthrough feature he made with troupe Killingganget, "Four Shades of Brown," whose title might be a suitable description of the palette of "Tinker, Tailor." It was a stroke of genius to hire the Swedish Alfredson to direct this oh-so-English material, not only for the sideways-angle European sensibility he brings to the table, but also for the flair for suspense, off-center framing and gloomy sympathy for outsiders he demonstrated in the pre-teen-vampire story "Let the Right One In." Indeed, the way he and "Right One" lenser Hoyte van Hoytema shoot the quartet of mole suspects as an ominous cabal, huddled together in their coffin-like, soundproofed room within a room, gives them a vampiric, menacing appearance.
Casting is one of the pic's strongest suits, with an ensemble that reps some of the finest talent working in Blighty. Everyone brings their A game, with Oldman setting the bar high as an eerily still, slightly sinister Smiley. Particularly worthy of mention are Cumberbatch, who in one charged scene gets across the cruel debt of silence secret servicemen will always owe, and Firth and Hurt, both in particularly choleric, amusing form. Kathy Burke (who starred in Oldman's "Nil by Mouth") has a vivid, salty cameo here as Connie Sachs.
Playlist (Sept 5, 2011, by Oliver Lyttelton)
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 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, and Working Title Films have 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? [...]
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, for 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, 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 layuered 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 Ciaran 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.
(Sept 5, 2011, by Allan Hunter)
[A complex web of betrayal and retribution is spun with elegant assurance in Tomas Alfredson’s melancholy adaptation of the classic John le Carré Cold War thriller. The densely plotted saga of cloak and dagger intrigue is expertly crafted and remains utterly absorbing without recourse to the pulse quickening action ethos considered essential in the Bourne era.]
Gary Oldman dominates as inscrutable spymaster George Smiley, heading a flawless who’s who ensemble of prime British talent. The film should be essential viewing for an upscale, older demographic who have previously embraced literate, top class British fare like Atonement and The King’s Speech.
Oldman has the unenviable task of following Alec Guinness who played the Sphinx-like Smiley in the BBC’s acclaimed 1979 adaptation of Tinker Tailor... Oldman adopts the ghostly pallor and nondescript manner required for the role, offering a masterclass in perfectly nuanced minimalism. A raised eyebrow or the flicker of a smile convey a wealth of emotional detail in a performance that seems likely to gain awards traction in the afterglow of the film’s world premiere at Venice.
Set in 1973, Tinker Tailor is immersed in the grubby business of international espionage. It is a grey world of faceless men playing deadly games in which nobody can be trusted.
Oldman’s Smiley is secretly reinstated to investigate the rumour of a mole operating at the very top of British intelligence....Unraveling the traitor is a chess game of bluff and double-bluff that crosses continents and time periods as we discover who has been pulling the strings behind a stunning breach of loyalty. Tinker Tailor methodically sets out all the evidence and works as a superior thriller, but has greater impact in the way it reveals the human cost of global politics. Everyone has their secrets and sorrows, everyone has paid a price for their service to queen and country, especially Smiley and loyal operatives like Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) and Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy).
A crisp, smoothly textured script by Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor is well served by the calm control of Alfredson’s direction and an understated production design that emphasises the drab, cold world of the spying game over jarring period details.
The pace may feel a little deliberate for some tastes, but the slow burn pays off in a richly satisfying piece of storytelling brought to life by a once in a generation cast that also includes Benedict Cumberbatch as Smiley’s legman Peter Guillam, John Hurt as MI6 Leader Control and the welcome screen return of Kathy Burke as lonely researcher Connie.
Times (Sept 5, 2011, by Wendy Ide) - 4 stars
Gary Oldman is doughily inscrutable, a pudgy, pallid little man who is all but unreadable in his swamp of an overcoat. He peers watchfully through thick spectacles that show more about the world around him in reflection than they do the eyes behind them. It’s an extraordinarily buttoned-up performance.
There is perhaps just one scene in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in which Oldman gets to emote and then just for a split second of raw misery which is rapidly squashed back into the box where messy, unprofessional emotions are stored. In short, Oldman pretty much perfectly captures the character of George Smiley, John le Carré’s seasoned spy who is called out of enforced retirement to uncover a Soviet agent within the upper echelons of ‘The Circus’....It is to Oldman’s credit that ten minutes into his performance, you have all but forgotten to make the comparison between him and Guinness.
Oldman’s performance is not the only well-judged element in this film. The director Tomas Alfredson reunites with his cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and the results are impressive. Alfredson has already demonstrated his skill when it comes to absorbing the visual nuances of a period. Like Let the Right One In, Tinker, Tailor is set during the grubby, nub end of the 1970s. What the director brings to this material is a sense of the twitchy paranoia of surveillance culture. He places his camera in a document pulley system, the better to spy on the inner workings of the intelligence service; he uses reflective surfaces—most effectively Smiley’s glasses—to suggest the peeling layers of truths. The colour palette also works particularly well: cautious, muted but spiked with flashes of authentically ugly 1970s colour tones. The strident mustard and brown check of the walls of The Circus’ inner sanctum work brilliantly to emphasise the tired, grey complexions of the men who are in the business of mistrust.
The job of unpicking le Carré’s dense and involving novel and condensing it into just more than two hours is a thankless one, which falls to Peter Straughan and his co-writer, the late Bridget O’Connor. They have done a decent job; there is no sense that any vital ingredients from the labyrinthine plot have been sacrificed and the story moves at a fair clip. One scene—Smiley’s visit to the former Circus intelligence expert Connie Sachs—is perhaps a little redundant but it’s well played, despite the fact that Kathy Burke is possibly not the most obvious piece of casting to play the boozy, upper crust relic from a past age of the secret service.
The supporting cast is a who’s who of British character acting talent. Tom Hardy is a brash but vulnerable renegade agent; Colin Firth plays Circus insider Bill Haydon with louche charm.
The intelligence chess games and the Cold War backdrop feel almost quaint, given the high stakes and manifold risks in a society threatened by the shapeless evil of Al Qaeda. But one thing is clear: great storytelling is timeless.
Standard (Sept 5, 2011, by Derek Malcolm) - 4 out of 5 stars
After seeing Gary Oldman in the part in Tomas Alfredson's film, the feeling remains that Guinness's ruffled and endearing Smiley, rehired to find the Soviet mole in MI6 at the height of the Cold War, will never be beaten. Oldman, however, goes his own way with skill. He makes Smiley into a marginally different character in a defiantly different film which, though true enough to Le Carré's book, is a grittier, less nostalgic view of the British espionage establishment.
This Smiley is a solitary soul, more introspective than Guinness and less knowable but still formidable. He vividly remembers his earlier interaction with a Russian spymaster and, even if he doesn't want the job, is determined to accomplish it. It's a performance by an actor more or less at the peak of his powers....
Alfredson...succeeds in showing us a world within a world where office jealousies, interminable bureaucracy and polite double-dealing are the order of the day. It is a world Smiley knows intimately. And Oldman shows us glimpses of the iron will and patience needed to pierce its skin and reach the flesh and blood underneath. Le Carré has said he is as near as Guinness to the character he wrote.
Will the film version mean as much to as many people as the TV series? One doubts it. These are different times and the cinema audience is much younger. But it is an effective celebration of Le Carré's artful story-telling, acted by one and all with a quiet panache that strikes home.
(Sept 5, 2011, by Guy Lodge) ***1/2
Looking for all the world as if the print has been stewed in black tea before being left to gather a few months’ worth of dust in the projection room—and that’s a good thing, I hasten to add—the film proves a happy marriage between two very different brands of understated precision: the British scholarliness of le Carré’s dense espionage lore and the icier Scandinavian calm that Alfredson brought to his breakout vampire drama...
In many ways, Alfredson directs le Carré’s self-described “little gray men” of Britain’s MI6 intelligence service as they are themselves vampires of the Cold War: lurking in irremovable half-light, striking efficiently and selectively, and only notionally acquainted with the concept of sunlight, these thickly-tweeded spies appear to bear the burden of their profession as a lifelong alibi for the avoidance of intimacy, social functionality and even standard-issue conversation.
“I don’t know about you, George, but I feel seriously underfucked,” says a prematurely retired female agent, played by Kathy Burke with a sad twinkle that says everything about the heart-hollowing effects of a life spent tracing the shadows of others.
The “George” in question is Gary Oldman’s Smiley, himself separated from his unseen wife, a veteran lieutenant of The Circus (the insiders’ codename for MI6) who finds himself, with his supervisor Control (an ideally crisp but weather-beaten John Hurt) put out of service following a junior colleague’s botched Hungarian mission.
His lonesome London holiday is short-lived: the revelation that an unidentified mole is burrowing deep into the Circus’s musty corridors prompts the British government to place him in pursuit of the offending double agent—this despite the fact that Control regards Smiley himself as one of five suspects, a group for whom (minus the “Poor Man” figure) the film is named. Already a professional ghost of sorts, this turn of events pushes Smiley into even shadier self-erasing territory, as the fraught cat’s-cradle of mid-1970s international relations continue to smolder around this local crisis.
...screenwriters Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor have evidently sweated blood trying to fillet and discipline le Carré’s tightly packed 400-page novel into a two-hour film that is still stylistically required to leave the impression of a slow burn. The much-loved 1979 adaptation of “Tinker, Tailor” for British television had five hours in which to complete this mission, so it’s remarkable that the big-screen interpretation feels so much of a piece with it on levels both dramatic and aesthetic, even as certain judicious cuts and short cuts have been made. You’d have to be a serious stickler to feel that either source has been betrayed in Alfredson’s more ambitiously visualized conception; its slightly fussy meticulousness may even be its chief hindrance.
Some le Carré loyalists may mourn the unavoidable curtailment of certain character arcs, and even if there’s a slight air of methodical parsimony to the way scenes and lines have been dished out among the men below Oldman, certain faces in the film’s impeccable ensemble do get short-changed. (For the audience, this is a pretty luxurious concern to have: better to have an actor as economically vivid as Ciarán Hinds than a dull one in a truncated role.)
Still, There are multiple momentary pleasures to be had across this spread of Britain’s finest—the shivery dignity of Colin Firth’s final scene, or even the way Simon McBurney ostentatiously bites into a slice of toast—but it’s the ever-impressive Tom Hardy who, together with the aforementioned Burke, most memorably seizes his metered screen time, bringing the same louchely knowing intelligence to proceedings that he used to breathe air into last year’s “Inception,” tempered with the darting fearfulness of a character who scarcely trusts his own words.
As Smiley, Oldman has perhaps handed himself the toughest task of all: with cherished memories of Alec Guinness’s TV portrayal weighing heavily on his shoulders, he has chosen to tread a similarly dry path of expression and gesture. Eyes frequently shielded by the character’s trademark cola-bottle spectacles, he works his own personality into sly infective details and hovers patiently around many scenes before snatching one for a moving, quivering monologue; it could be the one that secures the actor his long-overdue Oscar nomination, but for the most part, it’s selflessly subtle work that recognizes the character’s responsibility to fade into Alfredson and DP Hoyte van Hoytema’s carefully autumnal palette of dun browns and flannely charcoals.
Rarely has a perversely beautiful lack of vitality been so integral to a film’s success: for all the accomplished work done on the storytelling front, principal memories of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” may well linger on Maria Djurkovic’s splendidly down-at-heel production design, a veritable rabbit-warren of graying wood, petrified office furniture and gloriously tasteless bursts of contemporary modernism, like the queasily orange graphic pattern that papers the Circus’s main conference room. Everyone on set and off seems to have taken their cue from these worn-in but hardly comforting surroundings—Alberto Iglesias’s mournfully brass-heavy score is another asset.
Alfredson was an inspired but sensitive choice to direct this potentially outmoded material, and his delicate mood-cultivating sensibility reaps the same rare rewards that it did in his previous hit. A classy throwback to the pleasures of long-view tale-spinning, and an evocation of a time and place fading before its occupants’ own eyes, this is as inactively riveting a thriller as anyone is allowed to make these days.
Telegraph (Sept 5, 2011, by David Gritten) - 5 stars
A superb adaptation of John le Carré’s brilliant, intricate Cold War spy novel, the film is a triumph. It’s packed with superb British actors, all at the top of their game, with the lengthy book skilfully condensed into just over two hours of riveting narrative....
All these roles are played formidably, yet Gary Oldman’s Smiley is the plum role. In large glasses, with lank hair and an ill-fitting overcoat, his Smiley looks unimpressive, but has a razor-sharp brain and a touch of ruthlessness. We’ve never seen Oldman like this before, and he’s simply stunning: his soliloquy about his only meeting with his counterpart, the Soviet super-spy Karla, is so engrossing you forget to breathe. Alec Guinness immortalised Smiley in the 1970s TV version of this story, yet Oldman is easily his equal.
There’s a terrific extended set-piece scene involving Smiley’s young colleague Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) who must smuggle archived files from the Circus undetected. It’s funny, seductive and suspenseful all at once.
Much of the credit for all this must go to director Tomas Alfredson. He captures scenes with silky fluidity, dispatching his cameras into nooks, crannies and improbable angles, finding a visual equivalent to the story’s hunt for complex solutions. Alfredson is Swedish, which may account for his detachment in viewing the film’s setting as another country with three layers of 'foreignness’-—the recent past, Britain, and the machinations within the Circus.
This is a British and European success story. It comes from Working Title, our leading production company and is financed not by Hollywood but Europe’s StudioCanal. Its key behind-the-camera talents (including Alfredson and Alberto Iglesias, composer of the cool, sometimes jazzy score, with its hints of melancholy and menace) are all from this continent.
The best compliment to pay Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is to affirm that it does what every great film can do: it makes your heart pound, gets your pulses racing and sends your brain cells into overdrive.
(Sept 5, 2011, by Xan Brooks) - 4 out of 5 stars
A thunderstorm rolled into Venice overnight, flash-bulbing the sky and lancing the boil of heat that has enveloped the city these past six days. One could have sworn that the temperature dropped still further, to practically Baltic levels, during the morning screening of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a marvellously chill and acrid cold war thriller from Swedish director Tomas Alfredson. Right here, right now, it's the film to beat at this year's festival.
Nimbly navigating the labyrinthine source novel by John Le Carré, Alfredson eases us through a run-down 70s London, all the way to a municipal MI6 bunker, out by the train yards. This, it transpires, is "the Circus", a warren of narrow corridors and smoke-filled offices, patrolled by jumpy, ulcerous men with loose flesh and thinning hair, peering into the shadows in search of a spy. There's a mole at the top of the Circus, a "deep-penetration agent" leaking secrets to the Soviets. Control (John Hurt) has narrowed the hunt to five likely suspects. Now all that remains is for diffident George Smiley (Gary Oldman), working off the books and under the radar, to steal in and identify the culprit.
Oldman gives a deliciously delicate, shaded performance, flitting in and out of the wings like some darting grey lizard. We have the sense that Smiley has seen too much and done too much, and that a lifetime's experience has bled him of colour. His eyes are tired, his collar too tight, his necktie a noose. Yet still he keeps coming, quietly infiltrating a first-rate supporting cast that includes Mark Strong, Kathy Burke and Colin Firth. Away in Istanbul, Tom Hardy raises the roof as Ricki Tarr, the tale's bullish rogue element, while Benedict Cumberbatch is mesmerising as the well-groomed gentleman conspirator coming slowly apart at the seams.
If there is any flaw to the film, it's that the whistle is blown too soon and that some eagle-eyed George Smiley types are liable to identity the bad apple before Smiley does himself. But possibly even that doesn't matter as much as it might, because Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is finally more about the journey than the destination; more fascinated with the detail than the denouement. The Circus, after all, is precisely that: an outmoded sideshow of clowns, strong-men and acrobats, founded on dodgy principles and banging the drum for a war that may not be a real war anyway. Who cares who is responsible? All these men are guilty of something; all of them drinking from the same dirty water fountain. Tinker, Tailor … treads a shifting, dangerous world where 70s London looks a lot like 70s Moscow and where Santa Claus wears a Lenin mask. It invites us to look from our spy to their spy and treat those two impostors just the same.
Hollywood Reporter (Sept 5, 2011, by Deborah Young
The Bottom Line: John Le Carré’s complicated, distanced Cold War classic turns into a visual delight with an authentic British feel.
Huge on period atmosphere and as murkily plotted as its source material, this big-scale European adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 Cold War novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy shows a faithfulness that should fully meet the expectations of the writer’s fans. At the same time, with Swedish director Tomas Alfredson at the helm of his first English language film, one might be pardoned for hoping for a bit of the spookiness of his Let the Right One In or the political passion of le Carré’s The Constant Gardener. Instead this good, old-fashioned square-off between spymasters Karla and George Smiley demonstrates a lot more loyalty than most of its characters. It is one of the few films so visually absorbing, felicitous shot after shot, that its emotional coldness is noticed only at the end, when all the plot twists are unraveled in a solid piece of thinking-man’s entertainment for upmarket thriller audiences.
Loyalty and betrayal are really but perfunctory undercurrents in the dense screenplay by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor, which ensnares the viewer in an electrifying world of bureaucratic spy-dom from the opening scene at London MI6 headquarters, or “the Circus”. A bit like M briefing James Bond in a cluttered newspaper editor’s office, the action gets started when British Intelligence’s numero uno, Control (John Hurt), sends dashing agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) on a dangerous mission to Hungary. He is to meet with a turncoat Russian general who knows the name of a double agent high within their own ranks.
The mission to Budapest is a fiasco and puts an inglorious end to Control’s reign in the Circus, along with the career of his right hand man George Smiley (Gary Oldman). In his gray suit, gray hair and stumbling gait, Smiley looks ready for retirement. But after Control’s death, a sense of duty calls him back to catch the mole that cast a pall on his friend and mentor.
The suspects are cut-out faces taped to chessmen in Control’s shadowy, secret-filled apartment. They are all the Circus’s top brass: the ambitiously dislikable “tinker” Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), suave “tailor” Bill Haydon (Colin Firth, sardonically tossing off all the best dialogue), the solid "soldier" Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), "poor man" Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) and George Smiley himself. Superb characterizations help distinguish the crowded Circus performers, though viewers are kept on their toes with an ever-expanding cast of operatives like the trusted young Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the romantic "scalp hunter"/hit man Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy).
Smiley’s visit to another cast-off colleague, Connie Sachs (a delightfully blowsy, vivid Kathy Burke) puts him on the trail of the Russian spy Polyakov, who turns out to be a key part of the puzzle. Nothing in the plotting is banal or easy to second-guess; on the other hand, nothing is very clear, either, and there’s a moment near the end when overlaid voices start buzzing through Smiley’s head, suggesting he’s almost as confused as the viewer. But all it takes is the patience to hang on till the final scenes, and the chessmen will be made to show their true colors in a quiet pay-off.
Picking up a role on which the great Alec Guinness left his signature in the 1970s when the novel was adapted as a British TV series, Gary Oldman is a cold-blooded, inscrutable Smiley whose unhappy marriage is the only personal thing about him. The scene in which he relives his one meeting with Karla is about as excited as he gets, and yet his rock-solid steadiness in a world of betrayal and his penetrating mind make him a very British kind of hero.
With the Cold War long gone and other problems to worry about on the world political scene, Tinker Tailor risks feeling out of date and superfluous. Alfredson’s solution has been to celebrate the period and its rigidity in a stylish feast of modernism designed by Maria Djurkovic and lit by Hoyte van Hoytema. The look carries over from creative indoor sets like the beehive-walled MI6 conference room to locations in London, Budapest and Istanbul. Shots framed through window panes and sets lit through a constant hazy mist emphasize the spy theme; some shots, like Ricki Tarr’s spying on a bedroom scene in the building across the street, have a Rear Window feel. Alberto Iglesias, who also composed The Constant Gardener score, manages orchestral accompaniment with a sly subtle touch.
|Daily Mail (Sept
5, 2011, by Christopher Tookey) - 4 out of 5 stars
John Le Carre’s 1974 novel has often been called the best espionage thriller of all time, and this is an exceptionally classy version of it, starring an impressive collection of first-rate British actors...
Merely reciting that cast list should give you some idea of the quality of the acting. The good news is that everyone is on top form, none more so than Oldman, who has wasted his talent on some worthless material over the years, but shows here why he used to be considered the foremost actor of his generation....Oldman differs from Guinness in bringing a more dangerous quality, a sense of suppressed fury, a refusal to lie down and endure the disrespect of his peers and his juniors—sympathetic qualities that also give the film more urgency and dynamism than the seven-part TV series.
The screenplay by Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor leaps about in time a little confusingly, especially if you haven’t read the novel, and is a tad underwritten when it comes to the mole’s motivation, but it’s commendably faithful to the novel’s plot and ethos—remarkably so, given the film’s modest running-time of 127 minutes. Director Tomas Alfredson...does a fine job of capturing the superficial politeness and ruthless backbiting of office politics. He cleverly shoots the whole film as though eavesdropping on private conversations, and often uses a long lens as though the audience is itself spying.
My main reservations about this film concern its commercial prospects. The big problem is that Smiley is the antithesis of an action hero, at the other end of the spectrum from such effortlessly cinematic figures as James Bond and Jason Bourne. Smiley is an inaction hero: cerebral, cautious, painstaking, watchful and pedantically moral. He is not a very 21st century figure, and could easily be seen as stiff and unsympathetically priggish. But Oldman does a terrific job of showing that these qualities are themselves survival mechanisms—no passport to career advancement in the short term, but virtues that make him utterly dependable in the long run. Some may not respond to the ironically-named Smiley with much warmth, for he’s certainly a “cold fish”, but by the end you can hardly help but admire him.
This is not an easy watch. It’s dour, dark and virtually devoid of the kind of action that cinema audiences generally demand from an espionage thriller. But when there are shootings, they carry all the more impact, as a result. In these days of diminished attention spans, I worry whether audiences are willing to steep themselves in the intricacies of this kind of complex puzzle. The film requires concentration. It isn’t dull, but may strike some viewers, especially younger ones, as exactly that.
This is a mature film in the European rather than Hollywood mould—a character drama, as much as a thriller—uncompromisingly aimed at grown-ups. As such, it may disappear from cinemas more speedily than it deserves. But if you’re in the mood for expertly handled tension, subtle menace and superior acting by everyone involved, this is not to be missed.
|Total Film (Oct
2011, by Matthew Legland) - 4 out of 5 stars
The hottest jolt in Tomas Alfredson’s spy thriller doesn’t involve bullets or blood. It involves an owlish bloke raising his voice. Gary Oldman...dials it down to almost ambient levels as MI6 man George Smiley, tasked with digging up a Soviet mole in the bleak midwinter of the Cold War.
Oldman’s stepping into mighty, knightly shoes: Alec Guinness etched his most iconic post-Obi-Wan performance onto Beeb viewers’ minds playing Smiley in the 1979 adap of John le Carré’s bestseller, which bagged BAFTAs and bemused punters. A similar fate may await Alfredson’s version, whose spy games unfurl in a different universe from Bond or Bourne. In place of rooftop parkour and car chases we have a twisty, talky chess match that scrambles the book’s flashback structure even further.
Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s screenplay is a literate beast that doesn’t sppon-feed or tack on spurious action beats, leaving only the odd character out in the cold (notably Kathy Burke’s wistful, whiskey-fancying ex-agent). Le Carré’s themes—class, corruption, moral uncertainty—remain intelligently intact. On the other hand, you may struggle to fathom what the bloody hell’s going on.
Good job, then, that Alfredson’s direction is as hypnotic a silent snowfall. As in his tender horror Let The Right One In, slow and steady wins the race, here punctuated by knuckle-chewing knots of suspense (the opening hit; the closing hit; an excruciating plane landing) and draped in delicate period detail you inhale rather than trip over.
And the cast? Utter class. Colin Firth, icily supercillious as an MI6 big cheese; brooding former agent Mark Strong; and Tom Hardy, impassioned and paranoid as the loose cannon who first learns there’s a traitor among us. Hardy all but nicks it from Oldman, who mimics Guiness (all soothing drone and eternal watchfulness) before coming into his vulnerable, dangerous own once Smiley emerges as a mouse that roars. Small gestures register big (knitted fingers, a slight turn of the head). It’s a supreme show of subtlety from an actor we’re used to seeing combust; a performance worth shouting about.
The Verdict: Prepare to lose yourself—in every sense—in a labyrinth of double-agents, deception and damn fine acting from the year’s best British line-up. Oldman at least deserves the Oscar nod he’s been long denied.
(Oct 2011 by Angie Errito) – 5 stars
Verdict: Utterly absorbing, extremely smart and...quite beautifully executed.
It was certainly a brave undertaking, tackling what is not only one of the greatest espionage novels ever, but one whose 1979 serialisation by the BBC lingers in the memory of everyone of a certain age. It’s a pleasure and a relief, then, that the film succeeds in its own right. It is a superior whodunnit thriller and a very grown-up one, devoted not to guns, girls, gadgets and glamour, but to the little grey cells. And in plumbing George Smiley’s grey matter, Gary Oldman has understood the illusion of being a nondescript sort of little man with a remarkable mind, authority and a gut full of secret sorrows and sins behind the serious spectacles.
The starting point is a fine screenplay by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor that rings a few changes to John le Carré’s tale. Most of them are usbtle, sensible, and a couple are even a touch humorous. It probably goes without saying that the sterling cast is uniformly on top of things, undoubtedly delighted to find themselves in such excellent company. The real stroke was recruiting Tomas Alfredson. With Swedish melancholia in vogue, the Let The Right One In director proves an ideal choice to turn a baleful gaze on le Carré’s perfectly miserable spies—a breed of men he characterised as unromantic figures prone to unpleasant stomach ailments and trouble with their wives. Alfredson is clearly a kindred spirit of both le Carré and Smiley, intently focused and with a dispassionate eye for the small, telling detail on a face, in a room, from a conversation.
Pulled back into the Cold War spy game to unmask the traitor in the Circus that is MI6, Smiley learns that Control (John Hurt) had smiffed the mole and assigned code names for his principle suspects. Tinker is smug Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Tailor is sardonic Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Soldier is bluff proletarian Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), Poor Man is prissy émigre Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), and sadsack Smiley, also a suspect, Beggerman. Evidently Control grasps Smiley’s two weaknesses: his love for faithless wife Ann, and his fascination with Soviet counterpart Karla. It’s a great decision that we never see the faces of Ann or Karla, shadowy figures who loom large in Smiley’s capacious memory. In one particularly arresting scene, Smiley relates his sole face-to-face encounter with Karla years earlier—not through flashback, but an anecdote in which he becomes uniquely animated, re-enacting his dialogue with the cruelly astute Russian.
Other key players in the chess game include Mark Strong’s dutiful, tragic Jim Prideaux, dangled as bait, betrayed and abandoned...to become a teacher. Nowadays, of course, it is hard to imagine even the most third-rate public school engaging a darkly mysterious man with no past and permitting him to entertain small boys to tea in his rackety-packety caravan, but it’s in keeping with the seediness that deliberately pervades the whole shebang, from the dessicated Control, with his messy rooms and his paranoid plotting, to the nicely cheesy selection of Julio Iglesias warbling La Mer over the end montage.
It’s probable Benedict Cumberbatch had the most fun as Peter Guilllam, Smiley’s trusted legman (amusingly, TV’s Sherlock plays what Ian Nathan aptly described as Smiley’s Watson) with a groovy narrow-cut suit, fruity ties and a ‘60s pop-star haircut. He features in a showpiece nail-biter of a sequence; it’s a good old filching-of-secret-documents routine, but his progress from the security entrance and through the corridors of The Circus—brushing by suspects and the suspicious—is achieved with sweat trickling in suspense. Tom Hardy is a bit of a rough Ricki Tarr, a foot soldier at the thuggish end of field work but one with the instincts to know when he’s been sent on a fool’s errand and when to run. It is the return of AWOL agent Ricki that raises the alarm and sets Smiley on the right track. It’s wonderful to see Kathy Burke cajoled back into acting for a key scene as boozy Connie, the researcher forcibly retired to shut her up and shelve her encyclopedic memory. There’s even a cameo from le Carré, who can be seen among the Circus staff drunkenly hailing the arrival of Santa Lenin at the ghastly office Christmas party revisited in a series of discreetly revelatory flashbacks.
Those who have not read the book or seen the BBC version do not need to worry overmuch about plot complexities or following the threads—Ricky Tarr’s odyssey out in the cold, the workings of Alleline’s pet project Operation Witchcraft, the language of the ‘service’—although they are well laid out. What matters are the layers and levels of betrayal, to country, cause, colleagues, lovers and to self, from great to small, like a nested Russian doll.
Rarely do critics complain that a film isn’t long enough, but this is the almost freakish exception. The film is so well paced over its two-odd hours, but another half-hour could have been used to give the suspects more to do and to generate yet more suspense and concern over which of them is the traitor. It’s really the revelation of the mole that lets the side down—it doesn’t deliver the punch to the gut one wants. Of course, if you haven’t worked out who it is by then, you must be very innocent in the ways of these things. Of course it is him. It had to be him. But his all-of-a-sudden apprehension and the tableau greeting the latecomer arriving at the scene of the double-dealer’s downfall, while laudable in its restraint and lack of histrionics, is a trifle too cool.
Oldman’s performance is most eloquent and expressive in his fluent command of body language. The set of his shoulders and his posture, the occasional adjustment of his spectacles, tell you precisely what’s going on in Smiley’s mind. There is a moment near the end when we only see him from the back but feel an electric thrill, knowing with certainty by his stance that his heart has leapt at what he has seen. Alfredson is startlingly adept at envisioning how Smiley’s mind works; you can almost see the wheels turning as the pieces of the puzzle click together (at one point you literally see tracks converging as he nears his ‘Eureka!’ moment), and a clever piece of sound editing filters conversations through Smiley’s thought process until he homes in on a phrase that is key to everything. And then there is his face in the final shot; we recognize the sweet taste of game over, game well-played in his mouth.