Midway through Tomas Alfredson’s masterful adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John Hurt, warning of the presence of a Soviet mole secreted at the top of British intelligence, growls, ‘There’s a rotten apple’. But there’s nothing rotten about the film itself. This is handsomely mounted, engrossing filmmaking of the highest order, made by adults, for adults.
It also gives one of cinema’s finest actors, Gary Oldman, the chance to step back into the spotlight after a long period slaving away either in strong supporting roles or mediocre to crap material. He fills Alec Guiness’ shoes as veteran MI6 agent George Smiley, who has been forced into Cold War retirement following the toppling of agency chief, Control (Hurt) after a botched Hungarian mission. He’s lured back into the fold to uncover the aforementioned mole – one who has apparently been hidden among the echelons of the ‘Circus’ for years.
It’s a purely clandestine affair that involves spying on the spies who supplanted him: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), the latter having had an affair with Smiley’s wife. Having taken Benedict Cumberbatch’s Peter Guillam under his wing, Smiley is soon lost in the labyrinth of subterfuge, which also involves disgraced, exiled agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) and Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong).
Emerging from the shadow of the celebrated BBC TV series, Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s screenplay makes an excellent fist of compressing Le Carre’s dense, difficult novel into a taut two-hour timeframe. The screenplay is all the more admirable for the way it re-orchestrates and re-arranges events for a smidgen more clarity whilst also preserving the irresistible ambiguity that permeates the novel like a thick fog.
The presence of Alfredson behind the camera, and the creme de la creme of (largely male) British acting talent in front of it, is the icing on the cake. The beautifully shot Swedish vampire drama Let the Right One In announced the presence of a major new directorial talent in the world of international filmmaking, and Alfredson’s characteristically chilly outlook is perfect for this Cold War-set thriller.
The sense of time and place is what makes the film so utterly compelling. Just as Le Carre’s deliberately confusing novel created a powerful suction, drawing readers deeper into the rabbit hole, Alfredson’s film also invites people to get lost. What matters most is the overall feeling of paranoid malaise – it permeates the film’s characters and all but seeps through the frame. One can almost smell the pungent aroma of 1970s London. The air of possible betrayal lurking around every corner is quite overwhelming. Superb technical credits from Hoyte Van Hoytema’s smoky cinematography to Alberto Iglesias’ jazzy score add an authentically rich texture.
And in the form of Smiley, Oldman delivers some of the finest work of his career. Once famed for shouty, frothing-at-the-mouth roles, here he’s just as intense as before, it’s just the volume has been dialled down, the body language conveyed with the subtlest gestures from clenched hands to the slightest twist of the neck. Playing this seemingly lugubrious but deceptively iron-willed character, one who has been called back in from the cold, requires utmost conviction behind the unflattering spectacles, and Oldman does him justice.
The actor’s stillness is magnetic, and he’s flanked by a superb supporting cast, all of whom revel in the ambiguity of their characters. All the performances are minutely calibrated and attuned to the paranoid atmosphere Alfredson creates behind the camera, earmarking him not only as a technical helmer but a fine director of actors too. The Cold War may not have been a barrel of laughs for those living through it, but it’s fodder for brilliant filmmakers such as this.