We do not meet George Smiley straight away. He wears a dispassionate, icily glazed expression upon his face. He is aging: his hair is turning silvery grey, and at first glance, whether it be his reticence, his stiff movements, his thin, tightly pressed lips, or his daily swim in a nearby lake amongst other people his age, practising backstroke at a glacial pace while leaves, brown and decaying, blow on to the surface of the metallic water, we may conclude that he is tired and indifferent – not that interesting a character at all. That is our first mistake. For behind those observant, grey eyes of his, magnified a little by his darkly rimmed spectacles, burns a quiet, festering rage, born of unhappiness and the cruel realisation that the cause he may have believed he was fighting for in his youth is a worthless, corrupt, brutal sham.
Yet his cold determination and impersonal, terrifyingly brilliant logic betray him. He knows the rules of the game, has been disgusted by them, and yet keeps on playing. Where most fiction would take a protagonist like George Smiley and simply turn him into some kind of martyr, what we find here is something far more disquieting. For Smiley, in his undercover investigation of a possible mole in ‘The Circus’ (commonly known as MI6), finds a primitive satisfaction in his success; his own horrible realisation of the reality of his work is long in the past, buried deep somewhere behind those large, grey eyes, and this might be the only source of pride that he can feel as he begins to age. Perhaps he was emotional when he was younger – indeed, in one of the best scenes in the film (one of many, I hasten to add), Smiley tells us of his desperation to save the life of a Russian spy; this venture was perhaps the last straw for Smiley, and fully secured his disillusionment. The film ends with Smiley facing the camera, and we can almost see him smile, for the first time in the film. But this isn’t a happy ending, and I didn’t leave the cinema liking the protagonist at all; instead, he gave me shivers.
Of course, the source material – John le Carre’s brilliant novel of the same name – is over 400 pages long, and was long ago adapted into an award winning miniseries starring that giant of the British cinema of yesteryear, Alec Guinness. Gary Oldman now has the role of George Smiley, and safe to say, he excels. An Oscar nomination will doubtlessly come his way next year. It is an exquisite performance – all nuance, body language, gesture. Only once in the whole film does Smiley even raise his voice above his tired monotone; yet the performance is an incredible, unique, vividly memorable piece of art.
Of course, the notion of having Tomas Alfredson as director was always a stroke of genius. Still fresh from universal critical acclaim for his 2008 masterpiece Let The Right One In, here he demonstrates once more just how important a director he is, injecting his own unique brand of Swedish melancholia into his brilliant new adaptation. The result is fascinating; Alfredson gives as much weight to files being transported from one floor to the next and stored away in a cupboard to a botched assassination across the seas. Here, the assassins, rather than just being dispassionate, unfeeling cogs in the clockwork of the plot, are terrifyingly human – their hands shake, and beads of sweat threaten to betray their real intent.
Alfredson transports us to a Seventies of grainy greys, browns, blacks, and heavily diluted, artificial greens and blues, executing his palette with such loving, meticulous precision that the oppressive atmosphere of corruption, sorrowful disenchantment and the danger of violence lurking just behind every corner, almost becomes a character in itself. This could well be the most unglamorous spy thriller ever made.
Of course, as hinted at before, the plot centres around Smiley’s investigation as regarding a mole at the top of MI6, a fact that Smiley’s boss and friend, Control (a marvellous performance from John Hurt) was sure of; his determination to discover the culprit led to a disastrous mission in Budapest, from which he was left reeling shortly before his death. Now, the task is left to Smiley.
The bad guy is painfully easy to spot – it shouldn’t come as any surprise when the ‘twist’ is revealed. But that is irrelevant – for where this film excels, and what makes it so outstanding, is in its exploration of the disappointment, cruel disillusionment and suffocating emotional claustrophobia that these characters have unwittingly signed up to: emotional ties are dangerous, and often unsustainable. Smiley knows all too well, and it is another stroke of genius that neither his wife, nor his ‘nemesis’ Karla are ever seen in plain view – they are obscured memories, slowly decaying in some part of his imagination as his anger and wounded pride continue to fester.
Of course, Alfredson has done his homework. He has read his source material and managed to condense it into a single 2 hour film without it ever feeling unduly rushed – indeed, it is actually quite measured and stately. There are countless masterful scenes, including one involving Benedict Cumberbatch in the Government Archives, that is nerve shreddingly tense – Hitchcock would have been envious. The supporting cast is also a dream: a magnificent medley of British acting talent, including John Hurt, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy and Toby Jones, to name but a few.
So it is a little bit of a shame then, that there are niggling problems towards the end of the film: personally, I found the climax underdone, and the final montage, set to Charles Trenet’s La Mer, although an interesting idea, is ultimately a miscalculation – an attempt to wrap up in a nice little package what is in reality an incredibly cruel, chilly film. That isn’t to say that it’s a happy ending – it isn’t, and an icy shiver still accompanies you out of the cinema – but such an attempt at a satisfying, wrapped up ending (involving one incredibly contrived scene trying to emphasise the heartlessness of these characters’ profession, if it hadn’t been already) feels wrong.
However, it cannot be denied that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is an incredible piece of filmmaking – dark, uncompromising, perfectly measured and alarmingly detached, restrained and cruel. It is, even with its niggling little flaws, one of the best films of the year. That’s saying something!
Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (September ’11)