There was always going to be too much information in the source material to impart in a 2 hour film, that much was clear; the question was whether or not the requisite cuts would be sensitive enough to leave us a film that was enjoyable or, at the very least, coherent. In lesser hands, this could have ended up as example number one in how to butcher a story when translating it for the big screen. Instead, thankfully, we have been given a slow, thoughtful, adult thriller, the English language debut of Let The Right One In’s Swedish director Tomas Alfredson and one of the best films of the year.
At the film’s heart is George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a former spy who’s been out in the cold for six months – and who is therefore in a perfect position to investigate claims of a Russian double agent at the very top of the (fictionalised) British Secret Service. Oldman has become an intriguing prospect in middle age; the fiery, raging youth who lost himself in so many appearance-destroying roles, virtually unrecognisable from film to film, has seemingly now found a way to disappear inside himself. Although indebted to Alec Guiness’s previous take on Smiley in the BBC’s 1979 adaptation (itself an adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 novel), Oldman’s cold warrior is even more internalised, more distant. A professional life of lies, deceptions and secrets combined with a marriage to the unseen and serially unfaithful Ann has left George Smiley with very little to say to others. Whereas Guiness might have played a scene with no more than a pursing of the lips and a polishing of the glasses, Oldman’s Smiley retreats even further inside, to the only place that experience has shown him his observations, his opinions and his trust will be kept safe (his lack of expression at times is as startling as his Alec Guiness impression; I can’t say I found it particularly disturbing, but when your lead actor hasn’t spoken for a while – which happens quite often here – you don’t really want him announcing his return with a voice that sounds like it’s trying to convince you that these are, I’m afraid, not the droids you’re looking for…) Smiley’s keen mind is played out inversely in Oldman’s lack of movement; if he has nowhere to go, why move? So much of Smiley is internalised that in the hands of a lesser actor, he would simply disappear; Guiness, even in his silence, still seemed to be in constant communication with the audience. If at times Oldman internalises a little too much of Smiley’s processes we still believe that these processes are going on, deep inside and all the time.
As expected, the rest of the A-Grade British cast are also superb, Mark Strong in particular getting to play with a different set of rules than his recent run of psychos and villains have allowed and shining as the hung out to dry Jim Prideaux.Tom Hardy also stands out with his vulnerable take on Ricki Tarr, a spy who gets mixed up over a dame and finds it hard to live with the consequences of his actions.As for the main suspects, Firth, Jones, Hinds and Dencik all maintain the high standard even if Hinds in particular is given pretty short shrift; as Roy Bland, the Soldier of the title, he is the blunt object of the four, the heavy hand. His portrayal in the original by Terence Rig
by (and in particular his walk in the park with Smiley) provided one of the highlights of the series, his hand’s-dirty nature and gruff northern accent thrown into sharp relief against the Posh Boy’s Club of The Circus; you can’t help but feel that Hinds meaty menace would have been a good foil for the softly-spoken Smiley and would’ve gone down a treat here. Benedict Cumberbatch gets only a few moments to shine but one scene in particular – in which he doesn’t utter a word – works as both a triumph of minor heartbreak and serves as a reminder of the toll a lifetime of secrets and lies can take. Only Kathy Burke, struggling to sound convincing with a middle class accent, strikes a bum note as Connie, an ex-Circus employee visited by a whiskey-toting Smiley for information. Beryl Reid’s original take on this scene was funny, flirty and heartbreaking; this time round it falls strangely flat, an echo rather than a re-statement.
Fans of the original will also be glad to know that Tinker, Tailor… takes its cues from the BBC in its approach to time; it’s famously slow (and beautifully maintained) pacing very much present here. Some scenes play out in an almost David Lynch-style slow-motion, a brave move when there is so much plot to cover. This approach helps furnish the whole film with an atmosphere, a smoky ambience that is upheld by the grainy zoom-lens look and exquisite period detail (even if the end result, with its vivid orange wallpaper and sheepskin coats is more Sweeney than All The President’s Men). The Christmas party that is returned to at various points throughout the film, reveals previously hidden angles on the relationships between the key characters and is shot to feel almost fly-on-the-wall; the cameras contrasting interest in seemingly minor details in close-up or wide shots that take in virtually the whole scope of the room reveals drunken wives sleeping on shoulders, people doing embarrassing Christmas party dances, making off-colour jokes and, all the while, minor resentments and heartbreaks are tossed over, re-visited and – in one gut-wrenching scene for Smiley – brought to light. The intelligence this film credits its audience with is nothing short of miraculous in this 3D whizz-bang day and age. Alfredson never tells us something if there’s a chance we can be shown it or – better yet – discern it for ourselves.
Likewise, we are primed from the get-go to understand Smiley as exactly what he is; before the credits have even finished we’ve seen him swimming in a lake – with his glasses on. This cuts – almost immediately – to a shot of him at the opticians, getting an eye test and a new pair of glasses. We are being told that Smiley’s effectiveness relies on his processing of everything that goes on before him and his peering through lenses of different strengths here almost takes the place of a boxing movie training montage. He may not say much (the movie is at least ten minutes old before he speaks), in fact he may not do much, but he misses nothing. He may not have the reckless impulses or the border-line obsessiveness of so many latter-day cine-spies, nor has he a personal stake in what’s going on (no cute child in peril here and his wife’s prolonged absences are not due to a kidnapping, though he may wish they were); he simply has a job to do and the required skill-set to get it done. A minor scene, maybe only 15 minutes into the film, illustrates Smiley’s mind beautifully; a bee has found itself trapped in their car as they drive down the motorway. Guillam bats at it frantically while driving, potentially endangering everyone he is travelling with as he flings his arms around in an attempt to stop the bee from buzzing around his head. Smiley, on the other hand, older, calmer, wiser, just rolls down a window…
So… Is Smiley the perfect spy? Very nearly. I do have one – very slight – issue with the film. Guiness’s Smiley followed every thread, every clue and hunch to methodically, inexorably and finally single his villain of the piece out from the pack. Here, it is more like Smiley’s mind clears and allows him to see what he knew deep down all along. There’s nothing wrong with that; a man as prepared and professional as Smiley will get his man 9 times out of 10 and it is a wonderfully conceived and executed scene (by the time the conceit of the scene’s device becomes clear, you are just enough ahead of him that you can feel yourself urging him forward). I just longed to see a little more of Oldman putting it together, getting out there into the world a little more, facing his suspects until the evidence formed an unarguable picture, rather than what really amounts to nothing more than a calm moment of realisation. That this is my only real issue with the film (and one I may not have had at all had I not been such a fan of the Beeb’s version) speaks volumes about the intelligence, class and integrity with which this film has been put together. If it seems unfair to be comparing the two versions so mercilessly, it’s a simple by-product of my love for the original and the film industry’s remake culture. The fact that this version stands so proudly (if not unaided) is a testament to the work of all those involved. If this sort of care and attention to detail is something that we can look forward to from all of Tomas Alfredson’s forthcoming work, he’ll be someone to contend with at the very peak of mainstream cinema. Bring on Smiley’s People.