John Le Carré’s seminal, labyrinthine Cold War spy novel “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” proved that spy fiction could be “serious” fiction. With a layered, non-linear narrative, and subtle, nuanced characterizations, Le Carré’s book could be, and should be, taught in graduate literature seminars. Tomas Alfredson’s brilliant new movie based on the book is an absorbing, faithful adaptation. One of the best movies of the year, this is a thriller that persistently refuses to raise its voice.
Gary Oldman gives an Oscar-worthy performance as George Smiley, an involuntarily retired spymaster brought back into the fold to track down a high-level Soviet mole after a mission in Hungary goes badly wrong. In a sense this is “The Departed” with more brains. Like any good murder mystery, the point is to identify the traitor, and once that is done, the story is largely over. The audience is not in on who the mole is from the get-go (though it is possible to figure it out if you pay attention), nor is the story littered with unlikely romantic triangles. Adultery does lurk in the background, but there’s nothing unlikely about it, and it does factor into the plot. But plot isn’t all this movie is about.
The case is both personal and professional for Smiley, whose own agenda and motivations aren’t immediately clear. His young associate, Peter Guillam, played by Benedict Cumberbatch (“War Horse”), one of a microscopically small number of associates he seems to trust, is only beginning to realize how deadly serious the game they’re playing is, where of course Smiley has never had any doubt. Smiley, and dear God, if ever a name was ironic, is not just quiet-spoken, he’s repressed. For the most part he only smiles at absurdity, and there’s enough of that to go around. The agency he works for isn’t called “The Circus” for nothing. But then Smiley works in a profession where deceit is de rigeur and information is currency.
The screenplay, by the husband and wife screenwriting team of Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor, is literate to a fault, and faithful to Le Carré’s none-too-easy adapt novel. This isn’t “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.” Car chases, gunfights, explosions and big ticket property damage should not be expected. This is a chess game, not a mixed martial arts match. And it can get a trifle confusing. When reading a dense, complex novel, the reader can slow down. The reader can flip back a few pages and reread something. Projectionists won’t do that for you—although when the movie’s on DVD you can do it for yourself.
Alfredson, who directed the Swedish vampire film “Let the Right One In,” uses weather as a visual tool. He takes a chilly, raw, autumnal approach—it’s often raining or snowing. You can feel winter coming in your bones. But this is the Cold War, after all, and certainly an overcoat is necessary. The cat and mouse game being played out by Smiley and his unseen, Iron Curtain opposite number “Karla,” is likened to a game of chess with frequent visual references to a chessboard.
In other ways though, Alfredson has made surprisingly few concessions to the medium he’s working in. Le Carré could, and did, indulge in internal monologue:
But Smiley had a second reason, which was fear, the secret fear that follows every professional to his grave. Namely, that one day, out of a past so complex that he himself could not remember all the enemies he might have made, one of them would find him and demand the reckoning.
In a movie you can’t do this without voiceovers, and many directors hate voiceovers. The actors are left to find other means, and the acting is excellent—Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, David Dencik and John Hurt all give perfect supporting performances as the people you don’t know you can trust. Oldman’s performance is extraordinary, though readers of the book, recalling Le Carré’s description of Smiley as “[s]mall, podgy, and at best middle-aged,” will not have conjured him up as the most likely casting.
This is a performance that proves the adage the best movie acting takes place behind the eyes. It has to be with this script. Smiley never explains himself and has no dialogue at all for something like the first twenty minutes of the movie. There are no “To be or not to be” moments. He’s an intensely cerebral man, Oldman gets that, and makes us listen for the sound of gears turning. It’s a very patient performance, and it demands patience from the audience. In the movie’s last shot we finally see, in one, belated smile, something genuinely internal. Oscar-voters have long demonstrated a preference for performances that involve lots of yelling, and the one thing that may hurt Oldman’s Oscar chances is the fact that he never raises his voice.
The movie works that way, too. It’s very comfortable in its espionage milieu, cold and calculated in a way that’s almost Kubrickian. A movie relies, completely and 100 percent, on what can be seen and heard. And yet in any real spy story, you can’t take anything at face value, you can’t trust what you see, and you may have to strain to listen.
“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is now playing at Capital District theatres including: the Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadiuml 18 & IMAX, the Spectrum 7 in Albany and the Colonie Center Stadium 13.