Monday, November 07, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Possibly the hardest challenge an actor can face is to take on a role already synonymous with someone else. ‘The Prisoner’ with Jim Cavaziel instead of Patrick McGoohan, for instance – it just didn’t work for me. It was as unthinkable as Inspector Morse not being played by John Thaw or Rumpole essayed by anyone other than Leo McKern.

So, despite the glowing reviews it opened to (glowing? incandescent, more like!), I approached ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ with a certain degree of trepidation. A George Smiley who wasn’t Alec Guinness? Even an actor as accomplished as Gary Oldman? Hmmmmm.

I needn’t have worried. After ten minutes, my brain had stopped trying to impose Alec Guinness’s face over every scene. By the end of the film, I was convinced that Oldman was the George Smiley (big screen version) as definitively as Alec Guiness was the George Smiley (small screen version). In fact, walking back to the car afterwards, me and Mrs F solidly raved about Oldman’s performance and didn’t stop till we were back home.

Every rave review you’ve read is on the money: Oldman really is that good. And he’s not starved for supporting talent either. John Hurt is perfect as ‘Control’, the outgoing spymaster whose position is being jockeyed for by several slippery characters who have their own agendas, one of whom is a mole: Bill Hayden (Colin Firth), Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik).

Bulking out an already heavyweight cast, we have Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr, the ‘in from the cold’ field agent whose allegations kick start the plot; Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux, a former agent who may or may not hold the key to uncovering the traitor; and Benedict Cumberpatch as Peter Guillam, Smiley’s right hand man.

The plot is labyrinthine, but Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s screenplay is an effective distillation of John le Carre’s novel, finding a narrative throughline, effortlessly handling the shifts between the various timelines and keeping things pacy even though the film is essentially a 127-minute thinking-caps-on job.

Kudos, as well, to director Tomas Alfredson, following the wintery 1970s-set ‘Let the Right One In’ with an equally atmospheric period piece. ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ boasts not only a pitch-perfect evocation of run-down 70s London, but Alfredson achieves the style, pacing and edgy existentialism of 70s cinema.

So, any gripes at all? Save for an opening sequence that seems curiously artificial (although I think this might have been a stylistic choice on Alfredson’s part, since the scene details at set-up), and a moment towards the end which seems to pull its punches in the way the novel doesn’t, there’s not a single thing here to criticize. ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ is confident, intelligent and incredibly satisfying filmmaking.


BRENT said...

I have no idea when this wil NZ but I had the same trepdation. How could even Oldman come close to Guinness? But opinions have all been glowing so I needed be worried!
I laughed at another blogger when I stated my concerns. He turned around and told me Oldman was 'better suited to the role'!!!!! I like Oldmna and he is a fine actor...but he isn't Alec Guinness and even he would admit that.

Neil Fulwood said...

Having re-read a few of le Carre's earlier works recently, particularly those in which Smiley is more of a background figure, orchestrating the various machinations, it struck me that Smiley can be a cold bastard at times. Guinness made the character a little more avuncular. Oldman brings something harder to the role. Have you heard le Carre's comment on the two performances? He said that if he came across Guinness's Smiley on a dark night, he'd go to his aide. If it was Oldman's Smiley, he'd head the opposite way!

BRENT said...

That is interesting...I though Le Carre was actually dead for some reason! Admitedly it has been many years since I read the novels. I must admit with the praise for this new adaptation I am piqued.