Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy hits the mark as a classic spy thriller

by Mark Burger

The chill of the Cold War has rarely seemed so gripping than in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy , a superlative adaptation of John le Carre’s 1974 bestseller. Smashingly directed by Tomas Alfredson with the story carefully and marvelously adapted by husbandand-wife screenwriters Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor, this is a class act from beginning to end — and one of the very best of 2011. I haven’t enjoyed a film this much all year.

Gary Oldman stars as George Smiley, a veteran spy charged with ascertaining whether there’s a traitor in the midst. Smiley’s former boss, “Control” (John Hurt), suspected there was a Soviet mole in the upper echelons of British Intelligence (nicknamed the “Circus”), but was drummed out of the service — as was Smiley — after an operation in Czechoslovakia went embarrassingly wrong.

Time has passed and Control died in the interim, but Smiley has unfinished business in ferreting out the mole. It’s personal for him, in ways that don’t immediately become clear. Once they do, the stakes get even higher.

The ruthless, dry atmosphere of the proceedings is beautifully conveyed by Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography, as Smiley meticulously goes about his surreptitious business, trying not to draw attention to himself or his mission. There’s a pervasive air of mistrust and suspicion throughout, as Smiley confronts those who are friends, those who are foes, and those of indeterminate loyalty.

The film version captures le Carre’s story as well as the stellar 1979 miniseries, which featured a stellar Alec Guinness as Smiley. Especially impressive is how well the screenplay distills the elements of a complex novel into feature-length running time. This isn’t merely a remake of the mini-series, but a work that can — and does — stand tall on its own.

The film is densely plotted but not impossible to follow, as the pieces begin to fall into place, sometimes in almost random fashion. In retracing his own past, as well as past events in the lives of those around him, some of which take on deeper significance when they are added together, Smiley draws closer to the truth. The story moves back and forth in time, which doesn’t slow the film’s momentum but actually enhances it. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy starts at a high level and never lets up. It’s an immensely satisfying work throughout.

Oldman is a wonderfully unassuming, almost plodding hero. His is a reactive character but also an active protagonist through whose eyes the story unfolds. Oldman’s Smiley is the perfect spy, unassuming and low key, yet his intellect and instinct are clearly at work.

Oldman is at the center of the film, yet is surrounded by a peerless cast that includes Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Simon McBurney, David Dencik, Ciaran Hinds, Kathy Burke and David Dencik. Even in the smallest role, everyone makes a mark, and everyone’s in top form.

(Mark Burger can be heard 8:30 AM Fridays on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92. Copyright 2012, Mark Burger)

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