This feature based on John Le Carre’s best-selling 1974 novel puts the chill back into the Cold War, a period of world history worth revisiting if only to put current global politics into perspective. It’s also worth a trip to the cinema to see Gary Oldman in one of the best roles he’s ever enjoyed as George Smiley, the wily MI6 operative who must ferret out the double agent on the British payroll.
He inherits the part from Alec Guiness, who starred in the BBC miniseries decades ago, and it is worthy noting that many aficionados of the book have complained there is no way the intricate and dense spy thriller could possibly survive intact if condensed to feature-length film. Having never read the book, I think it survives quite well with Swedish director Tomas Alfredson working from a methodical, spare script from the team of Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor.
Set in 1973 when British intelligence was trying to push past the humiliation of being behind the curve of its Russian and American counterparts, the head of MI6, or “the Circus” as it is known, is Control (John Hurt), a veteran company man who smells a traitor. He sends agent Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary to take in a defector who claims to have proof of a mole within MI6, supposedly a high-ranking official who has been in place for years.
When the mission goes very bad, Control is forced out along with his No. 2 man—Smiley. But a government undersecretary secretly engages Smiley to prove once and for all the existence of such a person. Smiley is beset with personal issue of a failing marriage, and that’s about all we learn about him. He trusts no one save for the one agent he takes into his confidence, young Mark Guillam (played by Benedict Cumberbatch — a beautifully British moniker). Smiley likes to play it as close to the vest as the three-piece suits he always wears.
When he searches Control’s apartment, he finds evidence that the old chap had narrowed it down to five possible suspects and given them names taped appropriately to chess pieces along with their photos — the officious Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) is Tinker; the dashing Bill Hayden (Colin Firth) the Tailor; straight up Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) the Soldier; and weasely Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) the Poor Man — all members of Control’s old team. The fifth suspect is Smiley himself.
With hardly a gunshot fired and virtually no special effects, this is one of the most compelling and taut thrillers to come along in quite awhile. The cinematography is dingy with washed out period sets that add to the bleakness of a time when the world lived in fear of nuclear annihilation.Oldman, with hardly any dialog to go by, makes Smiley a riveting cipher. Is he covering his own tracks or hunting down a master spy within his own ranks? Oldman’s expressions will not give it away until the final minutes when all is revealed in what amounts to a very low-key denouement.
It’s almost refreshing to see these characters existing in the pre-technology boom world without cell phones and Internet. These agents are still executing their maneuvers with old landlines and telex machines. It’s all very low tech and oddly fascinating. It is also clear La Carre’s plot could not hold up with today’s technology. A few of the ubiquitous video cameras that surveil our every move would have dramatically redefined this tale.
Tom Hardy as rogue agent Ricki Tarr rounds out the solid cast of British all-stars that also includes Simon McBurney as a smarmy government undersecretary. But it is Oldman who carries the day on the stooped shoulders of a lead character whose name couldn’t be more dissonant with his personality. He’ll most likely get an Oscar nomination, along with the adapted screenplay, and possibly one for Alfredson in his first English-directed feature.
This movie is currently playing at the Landmark River Oaks Theater in Houston.