Director : Tomas Alfredson
Cast : Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciarán Hinds
Rating : 4/5
The career of Gary Oldman – frequently cited as the finest actor working today never to have been nominated for an Oscar – is something of a mystery. In the 1980s, he appeared in British films as disparate as Sid and Nancy, Prick Up Your Ears and The Firm, and rivalled Daniel Day-Lewis for versatility. A move to Hollywood in the early 90s did nothing to stop his curiosity and desire to play a huge range of roles, which included, from 1990 – 1994 Lee Harvey Oswald, Beethoven, Dracula, Rosencrantz and, most wonderfully of all, Norman Stansfield in Luc Besson’s Leon, a linen-suited corrupt cop to end all corrupt cops.
Then, around the mid-90s, something appeared to change. The films became more about the fee and less about the performance. He was still good value as flamboyant villains in the likes of Air Force One and The Fifth Element, and contributed interesting shadings to a Republican senator in The Contender, but an element of vitality was missing.
With the honourable exceptions of his excellent James Gordon in the Batman films, and his noble Sirius Black in the Harry Potter series (works that he has candidly described as ‘the least amount of work for the most amount of money), his work in the past decade has been negligible. You haven’t heard of most of the films he’s made, because they snuck onto the shelves, straight to DVD, as if ashamed. Apparently this is due to his desire to raise two young children by himself, as a single father. While personally commendable, the world has been waiting for a performance by Oldman that reminds the world of this fine actor’s immense talent.
Now, at last, we have one. Tomas Alfredson’s brilliant adaptation of John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy novel succeeds on pretty much every level, but the first thing that we must be thankful for is that it rehabilitates one of the greatest British actors of the past quarter century.
In 1973, Control(John Hurt), the head of British Intelligence (“the Circus”), sends agent Jim Prideaux(Mark Strong) to Budapest to meet a Hungarian general who wishes to sell information. The operation is blown: fleeing, Prideaux is shot in the back by Soviet intelligence. Amid the international incident that follows, Control and his right-hand man George Smiley(Gary Oldman) are forced into retirement. Control, already ill, dies soon afterwards.
Percy Alleline(Toby Jones) becomes the new Chief of the Circus, with Bill Haydon(Colin Firth) as his deputy and Roy Bland and Toby Esterhase as close allies. They have established their status by delivering apparently high-grade Soviet intelligence material, code named “Witchcraft”, about which both Control and Smiley were suspicious. Alleline shares Witchcraft material with the Americans, obtaining valuable US intelligence in exchange.
Smiley is brought out of retirement by Oliver Lacon, the civil servant in charge of intelligence, to investigate an allegation by agent Ricki Tarr(Tom Hardy) that there is a long-term ‘mole’ in the upper echelon of British Intelligence.
The codenames of the five senior officers under suspicion are derived from the English children’s rhyme “Tinker, Tailor”:
Rich Man, Poor Man,
Beggar Man, Thief.
With silver hair, thick-rimmed glasses, and a brilliant, analytical mind, Oldman’s Smiley is as much great detective as he is super-spy – a feeling reinforced by the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as his Dr Watson, Peter Guillam, and the unseen presence of Karla, his Russian nemesis. Interestingly, Benedict Cumberbatch’s most acclaimed role is that in the popular BBC TV-series, Sherlock. His performance in the movie is, perhaps, among the strongest – a great feat to achieve when cast alongside such big names.
Alfredson was also very much the right man for the job. Building on the success of his superb vampire film Let The Right One In, he creates a paranoid, anxious milieu in which everyone smokes, nobody can be trusted and where everyone – friends, lovers, colleagues – ends up betraying everyone else, almost as a reflexive action. Alberto Iglesias’ music does a lot to set the right mood for each scene.
The whole story is like an intricate chess match, every move, every agent – every information piece is as vital as the opponents’ next move. So intensely cerebral that one wishes at so many moments that they had the option to rewind and hear the dialogues once more.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is definitely worth a watch(and so much more) but like the massive stickers in the film’s elevator keep reminding us, ‘mind your head’.