by Matt Smith
George Smiley is not what we might think of when we imagine the hero of an international spy thriller. He is certainly not a James Bond or an Ethan Hunt, and definitely not as swift in his physical prowess as Jason Bourne. The genius of John le Carré is that he roots his characters firmly in the real world of the intelligence community, whether it’s a bureaucrat trying to find out why his wife was murdered in The Constant Gardner or a top spy at MI6 seeking out a mole that threatens to corrupt the whole system of British counterintelligence. Smiley is a calculating, unassuming character, and yet the cat and mouse game that plays out in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is never dull or lifeless, and Smiley himself is never anything less than fascinating.
Smiley is an aging bureaucrat, recently fired from “the Circus” (le Carré’s name for the British intelligence outfit) after years of service, called back in to investigate his former colleagues and discover the Soviet mole who has been placed right at the top of the department. As played by Gary Oldman, George Smiley is a man of quiet composure, but with a river of rage simmering underneath that never really gets let out. He is fighting for the legacy his generation will leave behind–his personal legacy–but surrounded by the inevitable decline of post-War Britain. Smiley is not built for the constant betrayals of the Cold War, himself a product of WWII, the last golden age of British world power, and this is his last chance at rectifying what, if it is true, would be the total downfall of his country.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a prime example of economical technique, without a single wasted frame or bit of audio. Information comes at a quick clip, and most of it is never repeated, so if you look away or get distracted, chances are you’ll miss out on something vital. This is filmmaking for adults and thank god for that. Director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) adds a touch of Scandinavian style to a very British story, and the production is drenched in cold blues and grays, murky shadows and a very plain color palette. I would be lying if I said that there aren’t visualizations which could be straight out of a Kurt Wallander novel. And yet this remains a faithful adaptation of le Carré’s text and a distinct film that manages to erase the specter of the 1979 Alec Guinness mini-series and become its own creative enterprise.
In many respects this film is about the decay of British society, as well as the loss of power that Western countries (including the United States) experienced after WWII, as the world became more fully integrated, less alien, and much more complex. There were no longer conquerors, except for the Soviet Union and the vestigial remnants of what had been French, German and British colonies throughout the West Indies, the Asian subcontinent and portions of Africa, notably the Congo. While the West and the U.S.S.R. were engaged in an ideological power struggle, these former colonies (and former non-entities such as those in the Middle East) gained prominence. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy takes the concept of this downfall and lack of true power by any of the major industrialized nations and turns the focus inward, showing a Britain that has lost control of even its own defense against the rising tide of moral gray areas like the double-agents that began to emerge during the time just prior to when Le Carré wrote this first Smiley novel.
The film translates all of this visually into an earth-toned palette that works beautifully, invoking the monochromatic gray brick that usually comes to mind when considering the Soviet Union’s collective housing units and great concrete mass architecture, including monuments and government buildings, many of which survive and can still be seen in former Eastern block countries. By making Britain a country of similar color tones and constantly bleak in appearance, the film works to convey how bleak the country’s legacy had become.
Gary Oldman has always been one of my favorite actors, and here he really branches out, playing someone who is a bit older than his real age, and is much more subdued than his frequent flamboyant and over-the-top characterizations. As Smiley he is calm and collected, and very obviously old-line British. Proper, and honorable, and, perhaps contradictory to that, absolutely enthralling. In fact, that pretty much sums up the entire cast, including Colin Firth and Mark Strong, who are particularly strong in their respective roles (which I will not divulge anything about so as not to spoil the intricacies of the plot). Fans of the BBC’s Sherlock should also be well prepared by an amazing performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam, a character who has almost as staunchly British a name as the actor portraying him.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a classically styled and highly polished old-school spy thriller, and its damn near as perfect a film as could be imagined from the source material. Tomas Alfredson has given us a terrific entertainment that is also one of the best films of 2011. A marvel of economic filmmaking and characterization, and gorgeously composed–am I gushing? I think I’m gushing. Maybe the reason I’m writing this six weeks after the first time I watched it (having seen it a second time since, and having such a difficult time writing about movies I love) is probably indication enough as to how good it is.
5 out of 5 stars.