The spies who came in from the 1970s
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Dec 16, 2011
"Trust no one, Jim," the British spy chief known as Control says as "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" opens. "Especially no one in the mainstream."
With those tantalizing words of advice - delivered with sad-eyed knowingness by no less than John Hurt - the game is deliciously afoot in Tomas Alfredson's long-awaited adaptation of John le Carre's Cold War-era spy novel. It's tempting to say "remake" instead of "adaptation," the BBC having produced a miniseries in 1979 that for three decades has stood as definitive.
Alfredson, who earned his bones a few years ago with the taut, moody vampire thriller "Let the Right One In," has managed a nearly impossible task: While not entirely banishing the television version's austere aesthetic and classical lines, he has slashed away at its clunkier procedural dross, resulting in a film that feels both streamlined and appropriately stodgy. It's a 1970s story told in 1970s style, an unrepentant un-reboot so old school that it feels subversively new.
Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) and his boss, Control, are both working for the British intelligence service MI6 in 1973 as "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" opens, when the Cold War is at its height and Control is certain that MI6 - nicknamed "The Circus" by its world-weary employees - has been infiltrated by a mole. Control sends Jim to Hungary, where the events that transpire will have inevitable reverberations back in London, where veteran Circus performers Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) engage in silent-but-deadly bureaucratic knife fights, all the while being impassively observed by the masterfully reticent career spook George Smiley.
For anyone elderly enough to remember the 1979 series, Smiley was and always will be Alec Guinness, who embodied one of spy fiction's great protagonists with the inscrutable rectitude of a poker-faced church mouse. Guinness's fans may want to cover their ears when they hear that Gary Oldman - at 53 still one of the great actors of his generation - infuses Smiley with newly excavated layers of psychological tension, not least because he's more than a decade younger than Guinness was when he played the part.
It's precisely this sense of virility and relevance that lends Smiley more pathos when he's unexpectedly retired from MI6, and gives him a frisson of danger when he's betrayed, whether by his chronically straying wife or one of his erstwhile colleagues.
If "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" marks the triumphant return of Oldman to center stage after years in toothsome but too-small supporting parts, the movie still works best as a sprawling ensemble saga, here graced with terrific performances not only from the likes of Firth and Hinds but also such relative newcomers as Tom Hardy (as the shaggily unreliable Ricki Tarr) and Benedict Cumberbatch, who exudes level-headed eagerness as Smiley's right-hand man, Peter Guillam.
Filmed in drab browns and grays, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" often looks as if it were filmed through a scrim of '70s-era cigarette smoke, its pacing as sclerotic as some of the company men (and one ribald woman) who live in danger of being outrun, not just by their Soviet counterparts but by time itself.
After being 3-D'ed, CGI'ed and Imax'ed-out all year, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" asks viewers to slow down their cinematic metabolisms, an adjustment that feels not just pleasant but positively lifesaving. As a stylistic and narrative throwback, Alfredson's adamantly un-thrilling procedural reminds viewers of an era when viewers allowed themselves to be entertained by a good yarn about a few colorful or at least colorlessly compelling characters. (Modern-day parallels, whether with back-channel intrigue in Iran or everyday office politics, may be supplied at the filmgoer's discretion.) To paraphrase Control himself: "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" is what used to be considered mainstream, before the mainstream couldn't be trusted.
Contains violence, some sexuality, nudity and profanity.