Friday, 23 September 2011

FILM REVIEW: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy


There's nothing at all about this film that would appeal to me in the slightest. MI6 spies, Cold War espionage, a heavily intricate plot involving double crossings, code words and secret intelligence, a bunch of old men sat talking around a table.... then I saw the trailer.





I've seen this trailer enough times now for it to give me goosebumps (and it's really enhanced after watching the film). It's brilliantly done - one of the best of the year. Now, not only do I want to see it, but I want to know the full story, more about Gary Oldman's character, and most importantly, who the mole is at the top of the circus. The music and the cutting then give me the goosebumps. It's an astonishingly powerful advertisement for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It makes it feel like he film event of the year - like it's The King's Speech all over again (hi, Colin Firth). And judging by the sold out screening we went to on the Saturday night, I wasn't the only one thinking this.

The plot is very complex (based on the novel by John Le Carre, not a true event in itself but Le Carre was part of the circus) and I'm not going to fool you all and myself into thinking I'm now a master on it, so in simpleton's terms: after a meeting goes badly wrong in Budapest and Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) is killed, MI6 veteran George Smiley (Gary Oldman) and Control (John Hurt), head of the operation, are asked to leave the service. But once in retirement it is not long before Smiley is asked by his former colleagues to spy on the new frontrunners Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Denick): shortly before his recent death, Control had become consumed with the belief that one of his men is working as a mole for their Russian counterparts. Even Smiley was a suspect. But now he must figure out which of the remaining men it is, with the help of MI6 'scalphunter' Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and assumed missing/dead agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) who has secretly been supplying Smiley with information from his trip to Istanbul.

Just look at that cast list. It's phenomenal, and so hard to pick out the standouts. John Hurt is very powerful in the small screen time he's given, and Toby Jones does a terrific weasel. Colin Firth has an air of class around him as ever, and both Mark Strong and Tom Hardy excel in their aside, but crucial, roles. The former in particular gives one of his best performances as the bitter and betrayed Jim Prideaux, who rather than dead has been quietly shuffled away to teach in a boy's school, where his friendship with a bullied schoolboy who he then rejects after a visit from Smiley is both tender and troubling. Repressed homosexuality is a recurring theme here, if apparently not so much in the book. Prideaux is confused and hurt by his relationship with Haydon, who abandoned him after things went wrong in Budapest and he was shot. Peter Guillam, after stealing some evidence for Smiley from the circus, is told to assume he is being watched and to clear away any suspicions - so he tells his gay lover to leave their home in one of the most heartbreaking and emotional scenes of the film. Benedict Cumberbatch is fantastic in this, and proves he has the talent for any sized screen, big or small.

But it's Gary Oldman as the Spy of the title who is the slow steady tour de force of the film. The range he can display from the merest of glances is quite remarkable. He is perfect for this role, showing steel and coercion with the utmost composure, so the moments when he breaks down are the all the more violent. His wife Ann, who has been carrying out a string of affairs including one with Haydon, is cleverly never fully seen throughout the film yet we feel her influential presence over her husband, who unchangeaby still loves her.

Tomas Alfredson has shown he can easily and deftly makes the switch from Scandinavian horror to British thriller. The Cold War period of the 60s and charcoal tinged London town and Eastern Europe are fantastically depicted by the cinematographer, as was the music, the costumes, the sound and the editing - I adored the final few minutes where the resolution of the film (don't worry, I'm not going to spoil it for you) feels like the encore to an opera.  All the while I was looking for a twist that never came; it's a meagre shame the revelation doesn't pack as much punch as you think it should.

Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy is going to have a field day at the BAFTAS in February, and with any luck, across the pond at the Oscars too. Could this be Gary Oldman's career best? It's the very definition of highbrow cinema and you'll need to concentrate all the way through - it swung opinion as I eavesdropped on people leaving the cinema (my favourite line was between an old couple: "yet again we were watching a completely different film."). But you can't dispute its utter quality and that's what will compel you throughout.



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