What can I say about the new film version ofthat hasn’t already been said – it’s spellbinding.
The new film version of John le Carre’s TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY by director Tomas Alfredson has met with universal praise. I can only add to the superlatives having seen it and offer my own thoughts as to why it’s possibly been so well received.
Firstly you have the facts: it’s made by a visionary film-maker in Tomas Alfredson whose use of pacing, lighting and framing shots is fantastic. It showcases a group of actors or ensemble: Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Ciaran Hinds, John Hurt, Kathy Burke, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Graham and , clearly enjoying themselves with the fact they are playing a collection of extraordinarily detailed characters. And you have a very different kind of spy world here from the modern directness of James Bond or Jason Bourne.
In John le Carre’s Cold War universe, we find people like Tufty Thessinger, Ricki Tarr,and – spies whose very names are at once enigmatic and maybe hint at the layers of mystery that they have lived through. And at the centre, is none more layered and enigmatic than George Smiley. What a brilliant name for a man who, in Gary Oldman’s pitch-perfect creation, smiles perhaps only once – while looking at his ‘Achilles Heel’ (as someone remarks) his wife Ann. Esteemed Observer film critic Mark Kermode noted in his review of the film that Oldman doesn’t speak for the first 15 or even 20 minutes of the film, and that makes it all the more powerful when he does. Measured and controlled, Oldman only raises his voice once when he confronts the mole for whom he’s been diligently searching. It’s a towering performance that I really hope will be justly rewarded very soon.
As I mentioned, Alfredson’s film which is set in the dark days of the early 1970s looks so smokey-hued and beautiful, it reminded me of one of Gordon Willis‘ incredibly shot movies from that period for maestro director Alan J. Pakula – the fantastic All The President’s Men or the similarly terrific The Parallax View. Here, Alfredson is collaborating with the director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema and the result is stunning. He’s probably a name to watch.
The story, if you haven’t seen the landmark TV adaptation or read le Carre’s novel, concerns the pursuit and identification of a Russian agent who’s been existing as a mole for years right at the heart of Britain’s intelligence network. In an era when, as the trailer says ‘Trust No One’ and ‘Suspect Everyone’ the mission which John Hurt’s head honcho Control gives to renowned agent George Smiley is far from easy. Recruiting bright-as-a-button young agent Peter Guillam (a great Benedict Cumberbatch) to help him, Smiley begins an investigation that swiftly turns into a labyrinthine mystery to catch the double agent.
A key part of the information about the suspected mole that has been uncovered is due to Svetlana Khodchenkova’s brilliantly enigmatic Irina. We and rogue MI6 agent Ricki Tarr (a wonderfully crumpled Tom Hardy) can only be caught in her spell as you’re never quite sure how much she knows or how much she’s innocent. But as Smiley questions each member of Control’s team – the codenames of the title – the mystery grows ever darker and more dangerous.
I remember watching Alec Guinness portray Smiley so memorably in the 1979 BBC TV adaptation. It was one of the first serious dramas I watched and I felt seriously grown-up. It seems unjust to pit one Smiley against the other, as you simply have two of the greatest actors you could ever wish for, playing this role and so I think we should enjoy any differences in the performances, as you would if you watched two Hamlets. How it took 30 months for the powers that be to come round to thinking of casting Gary Oldman for Smiley though, as I read recently. Anyone who has watched his brilliant, quiet and focused portrayal of Jim Gordon in the Batman movies can see he’s a perfect fit. But thank goodness the key people with this film eventually did.
So why has this new version been so very well received? Well, I think there are times when people realise a classy production when it turns up but more that, it talks so profoundly not just about spying, loyalty and betrayal but also about the past, the present and the future, which are of course universal themes. The past, where someone likewants to stay, remembering her ‘boys’ as they were before deception and ugliness came to the fore. The present, where Smiley is not only battling his own personal demons with the betrayal of his wife’s affections but also the reality of being amongst a group of men who he thought he knew but has to re-evaluate in order to uncover the truth. And lastly the future, a place where the mole and Karla, the Russian nemesis of Smiley reside, both wanting to change the very structure of a society from within.
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY really holds you spellbound and I think a second viewing is in order, Control.