Gary Oldman delivers the performance of his career in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Peculiarly lacking in punctuation, Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the latest adaptation of John le Carré's classic Cold War thriller, a tale of espionage and intrigue in 70's London. The plot, or as much of it as is possible to summarize, concerns George Smiley (Gary Oldman), an ex-MI6 agent brought back on the job to source out a Soviet agent working within 'The Circus' - the top branch of England's secret service. The mole is one of four men - Tinker (Percy Alleline, played by Toby Jones), Tailor (Bill Haydon, played by Colin Firth), Soldier (Roy Bland, played by Ciarán Hinds) or Poor Man (Toby Esterhase, played by David Dencik), each of whom holds loyalties to another, and none of which are clearcut. In fact, these are not so much men as bacteria; homunculi; clandestine shadows. Their sweat has met midair with the pungent smoke which wisps from the crown of their cigarettes, forming a fogged and damp atmosphere. This atmosphere is defined by shades of brown and grey, captured brilliantly by DoP Hoyte Van Hoytema. This is a world we recognize. And it is one we fear.
The real creative masterstroke was in hiring Alfredson as director. His obsessive attention to detail was evident from period romance Let The Right One In (2008), and le Carré's world of sleuths and snitches has allowed the auteur to expand and deepen his palette. This isn't the first time a foreigner has lensed London and caught an underlying truth - consider Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965) and Jerzy Skolimowski's Deep End (1970), shot in Kensington and Soho respectively. What the director brings to the table is a uniquely European sensibility - a cold climate of unease which permeates every frame, all of which unfurl at seemingly half speed. The film is shot almost entirely in close-up, especially effective in a scene where Smiley recalls his sole meeting with Soviet counterpart Karla. A lesser director would have visualized this memory with a flashback, but the weathered face of an aging spy informs enough. Alfredson employs long-focus lenses to intensify every frame, foregrounding characters who would otherwise blend into the environment. This allows the audience a feeling of being the voyeur, as Oldman has stated the director was himself. "It was as if he was eavesdropping, like a Peeping Tom, which is what you sort of want for a spy film." Indeed it is. One imagines Alfredson watching the dailies in a darkened room, door locked, dust dancing in the air.
Oldman's performance - curled of lip, uncomfortably still and vocalized in a throaty whisper - is a career best, and rightly touted for awards consideration. Many reviews have noted a line from le Carré's source, "by appearance one of London's meek who do not inherit the earth." Smiley hides beneath layers of clothing which disguise his true form, peering out at the world from behind black-rimmed spectacles. It's disquieting. Oldman plays him as an almost literal spook. Sadly his appraisal has led to the rest of this uniformly terrific cast being largely ignored. Benedict Cumberbatch (TV's current Sherlock) is particularly good as the glassy eyed, implicitly gay Peter Guillam, Smiley's confidant and right hand man. His portrayal is mannered and multi-layered, often suggesting important character information through blink-and-you'll-miss-them gestures. Tom Hardy is also excellent as the suave Ricki Tarr, who truly throws a spanner in the works. He's a softly-spoken romantic, but do we trust him? It's perhaps unfair to single out any actor - I haven't even mentioned the excellent Firth, fresh from Oscar glory - but these performances stood out to me as equals to Oldman's Smiley.
A final note: see it twice. le Carré's novel is one of the most complex in contemporary literature, and the 1979 BBC adaptation fleshed out its pages with a 290-minute running time. Alfredson's film condenses the narrative perfectly, producing a meticulous slow-burn thriller which will tie your brain in knots. But even those who are lost from minute one will understand the significance of a final glance between friends, part of a thread-tying montage which ends the film, set to the crooning sounds of Julio Iglesias' La Mer. Alfredson intentionally overblows the moment, completely aware of its neatness and conformity. The thing is, for once it's the logical conclusion. Might as well go out in style....