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Josh Reviews Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I was absolutely taken with the 1979 BBC miniseries adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring Sir Alec Guiness, which I watched just a few weeks ago.  It was terrific preparation for the equally wonderful feature film adaptation of John le Carré’s spy novel, starring Gary Oldman and a phenomenally robust ensemble.

The film, directed by Tomas Alfredson (who also directed the fantastic, creepy Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In) is a delightfully taut, twisty tale of spies and spy-masters.  I was stunned by how much of the story from the six-hour miniseries made it into the two-hour film.  The script by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan is stuffed full to overflowing with plot and incident, but the film never feels rushed.  In fact, under Mr. Alfredson’s steady hand, the story unfolds at a carefully measured pace.  As in the mini-series, the scope of the story builds gradually, as scene after scene of conversation (often between men who we, the audience, don’t quite know who they are, talking about things that we’re not sure we quite understand) accumulates and comprehension gradually dawns on the audience as it does on George Smiley himself.

This is a spy story, but it is not an action film.  It is very much a drama, and a drama in which the tension is drawn not from gunplay or chase-sequences, but from quiet conversations in dark rooms.  I’ve read many rave reviews of this film in which the reviewers commented that the film was good on first viewing, but GREAT on second viewing, at which time you could really understand who everything was and what was going on.  I certainly was glad to have watched the mini-series before seeing the film, as that enabled me to follow the story without any confusion right from the beginning.  (It also gave me the delight of seeing characters and scenes from the mini-series reprised and reinterpreted by these new performers.)  I certainly don’t think one has to have seen the mini-series, nor have any prior knowledge of the film or the story, to be able to really enjoy this film.  But it helps!  This is a movie that is built for repeat viewings.  The film (like the mini-series before it) does not spoon-feed the audience any information.  There’s little-to-no exposition to spell-out who people are or what their relationships are to one another.  You need to figure those things out for yourself.  In this way, the film draws in the audience, and puts you, in a way, into George Smiley’s investigative shoes.  As in the mini-series, I found this for-the-attentive-viewer style of story-telling to be tremendously compelling.

Smiley, so memorably portrayed by Sir Alec Guinness in the original mini-series, is played in the film by Gary Oldman, and he absolutely dominates in the role.  The film is exceedingly clever at presenting Smiley as something of an enigma.  Mr. Oldman doesn’t have a single line of dialogue until about twenty minutes into the film.  Those early scenes establish Smiley as a key player, someone whose eyes, behind a set of over-sized glasses, are always watching.  It’s a clever way to build up Smiley’s presence, because the character, as played by Sir Alec Guinness and now by Mr. Oldman, is not an action-hero.  This is not James Bond, and Smiley isn’t even anything approaching some of the tough-guy characters seen in the film, such as the British agent Riki Tarr (Tom Hardy, who will be playing Bane in this summer’s The Dark Knight Rises).  Smiley is a paper-pusher, an analyst.  He solves mysteries not by infiltrating enemy hide-outs or punching out bad guys, but by poring over documents and carefully, oh-so-carefully, asking questions and listening to the answers he’s given.  Behind those glasses, and those piercing eyes, lies a keen intellect and a surprising toughness.  Smiley is a great character, and Mr. Oldman is a dominating figure.

I hardly know where to begin when describing the insanely talented group of actors surrounding Mr. Oldman in the film.  Let’s start with Control and the other key members of the British Secret Service, the men Smiley is tasked to investigate on Control’s theory that one of them might be a Russian mole.  John Hurt’s gravelly voice and craggy face bring the perfect mix of gavitas and slightly-over-the-hill desperation to Control, the head of the British Secret Service who, following the disastrous shooting of an agent (the always fantastic Mark Strong, powerfully taking on the role of Jim Pirdeaux so memorably played by Ian Bannen in the miniseries) on a botched mission in Hungary in the film’s opening, is forced to retire.  Toby Jones brings an entirely different physical presence to the role of Percy Alleline than did the large, imposing Michael Aldridge from the mini-series, but Mr. Jones is wonderfully smarmy and arrogant, creating a character it’s great fun to dislike.  Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) is delightful in the role of Bill Haydon, able to switch from strong (when he’s negotiating over the phone for Jim Prideaux’s safe return), to weaselly (sitting in Smiley’s house after clearly having slept with Smiley’s wife Ann), to pathetic on a dime.  We don’t get to spend as much time with Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) or Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds, so great in Munich) as we did in the mini-series, but both actors are memorable even with very little screen-time.

Tom Hardy has really been making a mark on-screen these past few years, and he’s very well-cast as Ricki Tarr, the agent who falls in love with a Russian woman who gives him a key piece of information that starts the whole story rolling.  Mr. Tarr is a man of contradictions, someone who is a cold-blooded killer but also an almost pathetic figure, a man of far more limited intelligence than someone like Smiley, though clearly still a force to be reckoned with and an unpredictable wild card.  Mr. Hardy, under a mop of blonde hair, sinks into the role.  Bennedict Cumberbatch has been getting a lot of acclaim for his lead role in the BBC’s series Sherlock (which I haven’t seen but really hope to get to soon), and he’s great here as Peter Guillam, the agent assigned to help Smiley in his investigation of the mole, and the man most often put on the spot by Smiley when he’s tasked to steal key information from the very secret service agency they all work for.  Guillem may be the most straightforward, loyal character in the story, but the way his assignment begins to weigh on him brings a tragic aspect to the case which I enjoyed seeing the film emphasize more than the mini-series did.

The film has a dingy beauty.  Clearly this movie was made on a far higher budget than the mini-series.  In the mini-series, the tiny, drab offices in which much of the story took place looked like they might have been the production company’s own office buildings!  The sets were claustrophobic (which was effective) but cheap-looking.  The production design of the film is clearly far more elaborate, but the filmmakers successfully walked a very careful line.  The sets are interesting and intricate, but still maintain that real-world, every-day normal setting that is so key to the story.  There are no elaborate James Bond-style locations — no sophisticated control centers, no grandiose lairs.  There’s a mundane dirtiness to the film that really tickled my fancy.  Credit also to the production team for capturing the film’s 1973 setting.  The film doesn’t rub your nose in the period setting, but everything feels just right to me, from the clothes to the sets to the cars.

I loved the mini-series and I loved this film.  Both are wonderful interpretations of Mr. le Carré’s story, and they complement one another well.  As I wrote above, I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the story from the 6-hour mini-series made it into the film.  I was certain that the film would jettison all of the mini-series’ flashbacks, but I was pleasantly surprised that the film held on to many of the flashbacks (though they’re of course shorter).  There are small bits of connective tissue that, no surprise, were left out of the film that helped explain certain points in the mini-series.  Just how Smiley located Prideaux, for example, is left somewhat vague by the film.  I also couldn’t help but be a tad disappointed by the climactic revelation of the man at the safe-house at the film’s end.  The mini-series made such a meal out of that sequence, whereas of course the film had to condense the events into just a few minutes (rather than what I remember as being a 20-25-minute nail-biter of a sequence from the mini-series).  I also thought the film put just a bit too much emphasis on Haydon’s possible homosexuality.  (We really didn’t need that second envelope.)  But there are also things about the film that I preferred over the mini-series.  I loved Mr. Oldman’s one-man re-enactment of Smiley’s one meeting with the Russian spy-master Karla.  I enjoyed that we never actually see Karla’s face in the film, just as I enjoyed never seeing Ann.  (Her one scene at the end of the mini-series was a bit of a let-down for me.)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a rich, complex tale of spies watching spies and, to borrow a phrase from Dune, wheels within wheels.  The film is an enormous achievement that proudly stands amongst the very best spy films.  I can’t wait to see it again.

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