Friday, December 9, 2011
MOVIE REVIEW Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) NYT Critics' Pick
Dread throbs like a heartbeat in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” a superb new adaptation of the 1974 spy novel by John le Carré. It’s a deep pulse that maintains its insistent rhythm throughout the film’s murmured conversations, life-and-death office intrigues, violence and yearning loves. The throbbing does a number on your nervous system — this is a movie you watch on high alert — and brings you into the state of mind that can feel like a state of siege and goes by the name of British secret service, or just the Circus. For those inside the intelligence service, like George Smiley, played with delicacy and understated power by Gary Oldman, knowledge is power, but so too is fear.
The story, skillfully mined from Mr. le Carré’s labyrinthine book and set in 1973, is a pleasurably sly and involving puzzler — a mystery about mysteries within mysteries. The head of the service, known as Control (John Hurt), believes that there’s a Soviet agent, a mole, among the agency’s elite. His main suspects include his closest aide, Smiley, along with Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Bill Haydon (Colin Firth). To find the mole, Control secretly sends Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), who runs the agency’s scalp hunters (field agents with dirty, sometimes bloodied hands), to Hungary to retrieve information. But Prideaux, in an agonizing botch-up, is shot, and Control, already politically weak, is fired along with Smiley.
Mr. le Carré’s seventh novel and the first in his Karla trilogy, “Tinker, Tailor” is set against a geopolitical (and movie) moment that is almost quaintly, reassuringly old-fashioned, a time when enemy agents had names like Boris, and a red flag with a hammer and sickle made the ideological and political stakes clear. It’s a world of secrets and lies, shadows and light, illusions and sordid truths, loyalties and perverse betrayals (it could be called “Enemies, a Love Story”) that the director Tomas Alfredson conjures up in the film’s uneasy opening in Control’s apartment, a cluttered warren fogged over by cigarette smoke. “There’s a rotten apple,” Control says to Prideaux, drawing on a cigarette as he explains his theory about the mole, the folds in Mr. Hurt’s magnificent face sagging a bit lower.
That face, a crevassed landscape that suggests sorrow and history, has the granitic grandeur of W. H. Auden in his later life. In tandem with Mr. Hurt’s sonorously melancholic voice (and its useful undertones of hysteria), it is a face that, when used by a filmmaker like Mr. Alfredson, speaks volumes about a character who would otherwise take reams of written dialogue to discover. But unlike the1979 British television version with Alec Guinness that ran a dutiful 350 minutes, Mr. Alfredson doesn’t enjoy the luxury of literalness. Instead, working from Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s intelligent script, this terrifically talented director (“Let the Right One In”) distills the novel’s essence, finding images, as with the Circus’s chessboardlike walls, that express what the film’s words and characters don’t.
Smiley, who doesn’t say a word until 18 minutes in (“I’m retired”), re-enters the spy game at the behest of a government minister, Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney). Lacon has received alarming information from Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), another scalp hunter, who has met a Soviet woman, Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova), with apparent knowledge of the mole. Using Tarr’s lead and with the help of a trusted Circus agent, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley begins ferreting out the mole, spying on the spies. He also uncovers an operation called Witchcraft and runs up against an arch-villain, Karla, a Soviet intelligence officer, in an almost ruthlessly unromantic vision of empire dreams that unfolds in sad, grubby rooms where the flowered wallpaper is sometimes splashed with blood.
Despite that brutality, “Tinker, Tailor” is suffused with longing and love — for a country, a cause, a lover, a father — a theme that poignantly surfaces at a boys’ school where Prideaux re-emerges and which, in its cloistered quality, mirrors both the big boys’ club that is the Circus and recalls another school that haunts the narrative. “Tinker, Tailor” is partly based on the case of Kim Philby, one of a handful of British spies and Cambridge University alumni who were recruited by the Soviets in the 1930s. (Mr. le Carré, born David John Moore Cornwell, was a British spy whose cover was blown by Philby.) At the school Prideaux meets a lonely student, Bill Roach (William Haddock), a moon-faced outsider whom Prideaux calls “a good watcher,” a description that, given the sadness that cloaks the story’s many watchers, feels chilling.
First among the watchers, of course, is Smiley, the anti-Bond described by Mr. le Carré in “Tinker, Tailor” as looking like “one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth.” Since the 1979 mini-series, the character has been synonymous with Guinness’s performance, as Mr. le Carré has acknowledged. (Guinness resumed the role in the 1982 mini-series “Smiley’s People.”) Mr. Oldman, now mostly known for his small, sharp turns in big movies, playing Harry Potter’s godfather, Sirius Black, and James Gordon in the Batman movies, wisely doesn’t reinvent Smiley. Rather — as hinted in an early scene of Smiley buying the kind of oversize eyeglasses that Guinness wore — he and Mr. Alfredson have opted to build on the original interpretation, using it as a foundational text. (Guinness’s turn is the Torah; Mr. Oldman’s the Talmud.)
It’s a fascinatingly gripping performance that doesn’t so much command the screen, dominating it with shouts and displays of obvious technique, as take it over incrementally, an occupation that echoes Smiley’s steady incursion into the mole’s lair. Again and again, as he does with the other watchers, Mr. Alfredson places Smiley on one side of a window, looking out at a world that he both belongs to and remains very much outside of. There’s a sense throughout that Smiley, preoccupied with thoughts of his errant, faithless wife, Ann (Katrina Vasilieva, never viewed in full), doesn’t just live in a place apart but also in a kind of dream. Yet like the old Circus — a lost world seen in the intermittent flashbacks to a holiday party that, when pieced together, reveal so much, including who loved whom and who was betrayed — Ann is an illusion that Smiley fights for.
“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Some gun violence and images of (off-screen) murder, including a cut throat and a disembowelment.
TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY
Opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
Directed by Tomas Alfredson; written by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, based on the novel by John le Carré;director of photography, Hoyte van Hoytema; edited by Dino Jonsater; music by Alberto Iglesias; production design by Maria Djurkovic; costumes by Jacqueline Durran; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Robyn Slovo; released by Focus Features. Running time: 2 hours 8 minutes.
WITH: Gary Oldman (George Smiley), Kathy Burke (Connie Sachs), Benedict Cumberbatch (Peter Guillam), David Dencik (Toby Esterhase), Colin Firth (Bill Haydon), Stephen Graham (Jerry Westerby), Tom Hardy (Ricki Tarr), Ciaran Hinds (Roy Bland), John Hurt (Control), Toby Jones (Percy Alleline), Svetlana Khodchenkova (Irina), Simon McBurney (Oliver Lacon), Katrina Vasilieva (Ann Smiley), William Haddock (Bill Roach), Mark Strong (Jim Prideaux) and John le Carré (Christmas party guest).