By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 24, 2011)
It is always the quiet ones that you need to watch out for. I’m sure you’ve viewed enough nature documentaries on the National Geographic Channel to figure that one out. Lions will sit patiently for hours, waiting for the right moment to pounce. As casual and disinterested as they may seem at times, they never lose their focus. They are studying your every move, all the while visualizing how nicely you will fit on today’s fresh sheet.
Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s new film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (adapted from John le Carre’s classic espionage potboiler by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan) is chockablock with such animals. However, these are not creatures of the four-legged, furry variety that you will find in the sun-drenched African Savanna, lurking about in tall grasses. These are creatures of the bipedal, D-deficient variety that you will find in the fog-shrouded British Isles, usually lurking in musty offices with nicotine-stained ceilings.
The story is set in 1973, against a Cold War backdrop. Our unlikely hero is not so much a leonine, but rather an owlish sort of fellow. His name is George Smiley (Gary Oldman), and despite the fact that he would look more at home behind a library check out desk than behind the wheel of, let’s say, an Aston Martin, he is a seasoned intelligence agent for MI6. Actually, Smiley’s long-standing career with a branch known as “The Circus” is not going so well. When his boss, known simply as Control (John Hurt), gets booted out for a botched operation in Hungary, Smiley finds himself out of a job as well (more as a scapegoat). It seems that the office politics of the Circus are nearly indistinguishable from the acrimonious and paranoia-fueled spy games played in the field with “enemy” agents.
Smiley’s forced retirement is short-lived. He is summoned to a meet with a government under-secretary (Simon McBurney), where he is asked to surreptitiously come back to work. There are suspicions that there is a double agent among higher echelons of the Circus, who has been feeding intelligence to the Soviets. Smiley’s mission, should he decide to accept it, is to smoke out the mole.
Interestingly, it was Smiley’s ex-boss, Control (now dead), who intuited this possibility, narrowing the field of suspects down to five men in the department. Given that he didn’t have much going on outside of his job (apart from brooding about his estranged wife), Smiley jumps at the chance to get back in the game. And as movies have taught us, the Crusty yet Benign (city editor, lawyer, police inspector, seasoned beat cop, or in this case, Master Spy) needs an Ambitious Young Apprentice to watch his back (Benedict Cumberbatch).
What ensues is too byzantine and multi-layered for me to summarize here. And when I say “byzantine and multi-layered”, I mean that in the most positive possible context, thanks in no small part to that rarest of animals found at the multiplex these days: The Intelligent Script (#1 on the endangered species list). Not only do Alfredson, his writers and actors refuse to insult our intelligence, but they aren’t afraid to make us do something that we haven’t done in a while: lean forward in our theater seat to catch every nuance of plot and character (it’s been so long that I think I pulled something).
That is not to say that this is a static and somber affair. There’s “action” here and there, but it’s not calculated and choreographed; Dr. No’s island doesn’t blow up at the end. When violence does occur, it’s ugly, ungraceful and anything but cinematic (as in real life). Most of the “thrills” are drawn from the arsenal of the skilled actor; a sideways glance or a subtle voice inflection that can ratchet up the tension as effectively as someone holding a gun to your head.
This is Oldman’s best performance in years. It’s nice to see him take a break from playing cartoon villains and getting back to where he once belonged (his bespectacled, enigmatic characterization hearkens back to another Cold War film spy hero, Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer). Rounding off a top-notch cast are Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong (a standout) and the wonderful Kathy Burke (who nails 2011’s best movie line: “I don’t know about you, George, but I’m feeling seriously under-fucked.”).
DP Hoyte Van Hoytema (who also photographed the director’s moody 2008 vampire tale, Let the Right One In) deserves a mention. He sustains a bleak, wintry atmosphere that could be pulling double duty as a visual metaphor for the Cold War itself; or for the arctic desolation of the alarmingly pale souls who populate this tale. Not unlike vampires, they are twilight creatures who stalk their prey under cloak of darkness, and live in mortal fear of illumination and discovery. As I said…always watch out for the quiet ones.