How do you know a colleague has been sleeping with your wife? In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, George Smiley (Gary Oldman) drops his eyes to the floor of his living room and lets them travel under a table, where the culprit’s feet wriggle in unlaced shoes. The co-worker claims to have been dropping off a present while Smiley’s wife gets up from a nap, but the shoes are a dead giveaway. These people are gentlemen; undone laces are practically as telling as a pair of strange boxer shorts on the floor.
Make that Y-fronts. This is England in 1973, the world is brown and grey and beige and trouble is afoot at British intelligence agency MI6 (known to insiders as The Circus). A recent operation in Budapest has gone disastrously wrong; there’s a mole at the agency, leaking information to the Russians. Smiley is assigned to track down the traitor. Likely candidates include Percy Alleline (Toby Jones, who acts the villain), smooth talker Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), dour Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) or ferrety Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). Aside from a Russian moll, a dowdy paper pusher and the back of a cheating wife or two, this world is a male one. The roomos are smoke-filled and the faces pasty white. Oldman himself is about the color of paper.
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Change is on the way though — just down the alley from a key location in this cloak, dagger and betrayal story is a piece of graffiti that reads “the future is female.” Don’t think director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) included that blithely. He’s a detail man, whether it be a knife being dragged across cold toast or a tidy arrangement of man and entrails in bathtub. You’re supposed to notice all this the way you observe the stitching on a bespoke suit, there if you look close enough.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is so elegant, deliberate and smart that it’s a shocker it got made. Intended for grown ups with a taste for the old fashioned, Tinker is not urgent like a Bourne film or its imitators. That’s not to say it isn’t involving. It is, but the kind that asks you to sit with it a while and to pay attention.
Close attention. As I left a screening a group of critics was debating whether anyone unfamiliar with le Carre’s novel or the BBC’s nearly five-hour 1979 mini series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (this new version is comma-free, as befits its streamlined nature) would have any clue as to what was going on. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I was that clean slate, but pleased to report that the film works for the uninitiated who stay alert. Know that where le Carre is involved, it’s best to just try and keep up.
I’ve since watched enough of the original Tinker to appreciate that Sir Alec Guinness makes a supreme Smiley, the perfect blend of reserve and unflappability. But so does Oldman, whose Smiley is so stiff he even seems to swim upright. It’s the rare hint at life outside that reserve that make him so intriguing — like watching a Venus flytrap make its move. In one scene he goes to visit Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke), one of the retired folks from the Circus, to search for clues in her recollection of past events. He slowly pulls out a bottle of liquor and puts it down on the tea table – an invitation for some intimacy from an old friend and colleague and somehow, a captivating gesture. “Wicked, wicked George,” Connie laughs. There are things we’ll never know about Smiley, no matter how many le Carre books he features in (eight). As these old veterans sit together, a young couple in the adjacent room makes out passionately, oblivious to them. “I feel seriously under-f____d” Connie says ruefully. She rests for a beat. She suspects Smiley knows the feeling. “I hear Ann left you again.” Zing. She likes Smiley, but he’s a bastard too, someone too tough to ever feel sorry for.
Look for meaty scenes between Oldman and the reliably delicious Firth, and great performances from War Horse’s Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Smiley’s put-upon assistant Peter Guillam, and Tom Hardy (Inception, Warrior). Hardy is Ricki Tarr, a former Circus member and so-called scalphunter, completer of “dirty little jobs” who went AWOL when he fell for a beautiful Russian woman with secrets. Ricki is the antithesis of Smiley, he’s all brawn and passion and dreams of a fresh start outside the Circus. “I want a family,” Ricki says. “I don’t want to end up like you lot.” The beauty of George Smiley? From his faint smile, it’s clear he doesn’t disagree. Slogging through villains and supporting work, some of it a real misery (this year’s Red Riding Hood, which made our worst of the year list), Oldman has been waiting for a part such as this for years. He makes every second on screen count.
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