Now here’s a rare moment for me. I’m reviewing a film that is not only not out in the US yet, but isn’t for about 3 months. Because of this I will try to keep plot details to a minimum beyond the premise. Suffice to say the butler did it for the money with the assistance of the femme fatale. Whoops.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a spy thriller based on the novel of the same name by John LeCarre. It is part of the George Smiley series of novels about a middle aged intelligence officer at MI6, or The Circus as it is referred to here. The book is the fifth of the seven Smiley based novels and the first part of the Karla Trilogy. It’ll be interesting if they do adapt the following two parts to this story as this film is certainly going to pull in a lot of attention. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that the words “Oscar Winner” will be printed on a lot of this films future home releases.
The story goes as follows. George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a MI6 spy forced into retirement along with his boss Control (John Hurt) after an operative (Jim Prideaux played by Mark Strong) sent in secret by Control to Hungary is shot during his mission. He was sent in an attempt to find information that could uncover a suspected mole at The Circus. Smiley is forced into retirement due to himself and Control being the top two men in their division. Around a year later suspicions of there being a mole within The Circus resurface and Smiley is brought back in to investigate in secret. As he has been retired for a year his name is clear and so he’s the perfect choice. Helping him is Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), a spy within The Circus who isn’t under suspicion and a friend of Smiley’s named Mendel (Roger Lloyd-Pack or Trigger to his friends. I used to work with his Nephew you know.).
That’s about all you need to know about the plot. To tell anymore could start the spoilers flowing. The story is told at a sedate pace, but don’t confuse sedate for boring. George Smiley is very much a thinking man who takes his time with investigations making sure to analyze every angle. What’s refreshing about this is that the film takes on a much more considered pace that’s quite unusual for modern cinema. There’s no bombastic music or scenes where characters feel the need to get all up close and personal whilst gritting their teeth as they snarl accusations. The conflict in this film is through well plotted tension, internalised characterisation and the mystery surrounding the main plot. This feels very much like a classic BBC drama of the 70s and 80s, and it’s all the better for it. At no point does it feel the need to spell every aspect of it’s story out for you leaving plenty up for interpretation.
This is a film of small details be it from clues strewn through the plot or something as simple as a small character insight such as how Smiley is cautious enough to place a small piece of wood in the front door frame before he leaves his house so he can tell if anyone has broken in. There’s also a subplot running throughout involving Smiley’s wife Ann who has left him, apparently not for the first time. We never see Ann’s face which is symbolic of the distance between herself and George. What you do see of her is the apparent image of a very glamorous and beautiful woman. You get the impression that she’s possibly a little above Smiley’s level as far as attractiveness goes, or maybe that’s just his perception of her. There are so many little details in this film that it’s best for me to not go into them. It’s better that you experience them. Just watch out for what the end fate of a bird killed during one scene is. It’s quite easy to miss but quite funny if you do.
The film is a period piece which was very welcome. It would have been so easy for a weaker director to attempt to modernise this story but it would have been pointless. The threat of the cold war looms over the whole story and without that it would lose a lot of it’s tone. The recreation of an early 70s London is excellent too. Again, there’s so many details to spot. A pack of Trebor mints, a spy reading a copy of Jackie, George and Peter eating at a Wimpy. So many small details that British viewers over the age of 30 will start to recognise and maybe even get a small laugh from.
The film does have a very dry sense of humour running through it which is very surprising to see in a film of this tone. I think director Tomas Alfredson (Director of Let The Right One In) is cementing his place as a director to watch here. His deft handling of those little subtleties such as the humour and his ability to not succumb to the idiocracy of modern film is very welcome. I’m hoping this will be one of the films to lead the charge in the oncoming shift against the moronic and simplified cinema of recent years where audiences have been spoon fed films that explain everything and leave nothing for their brains to mull over. There seems to have been a gradual shift back to these sorts of films. It happens every few years or so and we’re well overdue a shift back to intelligent films for sure.
Performances are strong throughout with not a single actor letting the side down. It was quite fun to see so many of Britain’s best actors on the screen here too. Even Kathy Burke gets in on the fun. Oldman is doing his usual Chameleon impression here. There’s so many actors these days who just go into a role to play either themselves or a tweaked version of a character they’ve played before. Gary Oldman is one of the few big names to not fall into that trap. His performance here is something to behold. He doesn’t say much (doesn’t even speak for the first 10 minutes or so), probably having among the least lines in the film, but when he talks you can feel his every intent coming through. Another actor that excels here is Benedict Cumberbatch. I’ve said it before when posting trailers for this film but I honestly think that the BBC are gonna find it very hard to keep Sherlock going before too long because Cumberbatch will be in demand after this. He has an incredible charisma here. The sort usually commanded by actors such as Alan Rickman or Stephen Fry. I don’t think it will be long before he has a leading role in a film that shoots him to the upper tiers of stardom. He is also part of the best shot in the film. A simple reveal shot towards the end of act two which will get a chuckle but is also a genuinely beautiful shot.
I can’t really pick a fault for this film. It’s superbly directed, written and shot. Everything comes together very well and every actor has been given plenty of detail to chew over. Colin Firth does his usual stuff here, I still don’t get his appeal but he does do a very good job in this film. I suppose it may be a little hard going for… shall we say audiences that aren’t inclined to a film that asks them to think. Nah. I’ll just say idiots instead. It’ll be hard going for idiots but who cares. The film isn’t for them. I’m in two minds as to whether I’d want to see the following books adapted. In the one hand the plot threads are there but on the other this film is so good I’d hate to see it risk being sullied by an inferior sequel. Especially if anyone other than Alfredson was in charge. If you’re from the US reading this then make sure you see it upon release. If you’re in the UK go see it as soon as you can. Film of the year.