Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will hold you spellbound

What can I say about the new film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that hasn’t already been said? It’s spellbinding.

I can only add to the superlatives that have abounded since the release of the film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and offer my own thoughts as to possibly why it’s been so well received. Apart from the facts, that it’s made by a visionary film-maker in Tomas Alfredson, whose use of lighting and framing in shots is fantastic. It also showcases a group of actors: Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Ciaran Hinds, John Hurt, Kathy Burke, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Graham and David Dencik, clearly enjoying themselves with the fact they are playing a collection of extraordinarily detailed characters.

What a different kind of spy world we’re in from the stout, directness of Bond or Bourne. Here in John le Carre’s Cold War universe, we find people like Tufty Thessinger, Ricki Tarr, Peter Guillam and Toby Esterhase – 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. Not speaking for the first 15 or even 20 minutes of the film, as Mark Kermode has noted, makes it all the more powerful when he does. Measured and controlled, he 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.

I remember watching Alec Guinness so memorably portray Smiley in the 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 to come round to thinking of casting Gary Oldman for Smiley though (as I read recently) is baffling. Anyone who has watched his brilliant, quiet and focused Jim Gordon in the Batman movies can see this. But thank goodness the powers that be with this film eventually did.

As I mentioned previously, the film, set in the dark days of the Cold War in the early 1970s, looks so smokey-hued and beautiful it reminded me of one of Gordon Willis’ incredibly shot movies from that period – the fantastic All The President’s Men or the similarly terrific The Parallax View. Here it’s director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema calling the shots and he does an excellent job. Probably a name to watch.

So why has it been so well received? Well there are times when people realise a classy production when it turns up but more that I think 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 like Connie Sachs wants 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.

The whole thing really holds you spellbound. I think a second viewing is in order, Control.

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