IF THE CURRENT INTEREST in the 1950s with its rigid gender codes and well-advertised postwar optimistic veneer seems largely a diversion, suitable for mockery and/or nostalgia, not so the ’70s, whose failures (Vietnam), corruption (Watergate), and crumbling economy on both sides of the Atlantic opened the door to Reagan’s and Thatcher’s reactionary governments and thence to the way we live now—too close for comfort to the way we were then. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), John le Carré’s cold war espionage procedural, is set in the early ’70s, inside Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6 or “the Circus”—the latter having to do with the proximity of its headquarters to Oxford Circus rather than with the madly straitlaced performative style of its employees. Le Carré’s hero, George Smiley, is brought out of forced retirement to find the mole who is delivering British and American secrets to Moscow from within MI6. The enormously successful novel—partly inspired by the traitorous Cambridge spies, most infamously Kim Philby—was adapted for British television in 1979 with Alec Guinness as Smiley, thus increasing le Carré’s fan base in both Britain and the US. (The series played here on PBS.)
And now we have Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), a most brilliant feature movie directed by Tomas Alfredson and starring Gary Oldman in a performance of subzero cool that nevertheless ignites the screen with suppressed rage and longing. Far more lively, cruel, sexy, subtle, and poignant than the television version, TTSS opened a few months ago in Britain and scored at the box office. Chalk it up to ’70s déjà vu, because even more than the novel and the TV series, the movie is the antithesis of the blockbuster Bond and Bourne spy sagas. Not that TTSS lacks suspense; indeed, its narrative structure—many small slow burns within a single edge-of-your seat arc—is worthy of Hitchcock at his best. Nevertheless, those who want their spy films to be one long chase punctuated by gunfire and martial arts mayhem may find Alfredson’s vision a bit too cerebral for their taste. I, on the other hand, can imagine nothing more thrilling than watching Oldman’s Smiley look, listen, and think.
The movie’s only conventionally choreographed action scene—and the mechanism by which the plot is set in motion—occurs before the opening titles. Control (John Hurt), the beleaguered head of MI6, dispatches experienced agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary to meet with a Soviet military officer who knows the identity of the mole. “Trust no one, Jim” cautions Control, but poor Jim makes one unfortunate exception in the name of love—about which we learn much, much later—thus creating a disastrous international incident that results in Control being sacked along with his right-hand man, Smiley. Control and Smiley’s exit from the Circus occupies much of the title sequence, during which they traverse the complicated, multileveled piece of architecture that houses MI6, wordlessly encountering and refusing to make eye contact with almost every character of significance in the events that follow. It is a masterful bit of motion picture making.
But no more so than the rest of the movie. Espionage is depicted as a thinking man’s game (although there is no doubt that Smiley could use his gun if pushed to it). Alfredson maps observations, suspicions, and deductions through frequent slow, seemingly weightless tracking moves that close in on objects and persons with charged intent: It’s camera movement as thought. Similarly, Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s deftly condensed script (dozens of le Carré’s pages stripped down to a single sentence) and the extremely elliptical editing within and between scenes—including a few subjective flashbacks—suggest mental processes (mostly Smiley’s) without the usual expressionist markings of subjectivity. (Alberto Iglesias’s elegiac orchestral score, with its touches of fado, does a great deal to establish tone.) The production design in myriad shades of gray and brown with the occasional hit of mustard or burnt sienna organizes almost every shot around frames within the frame (doorframes, window frames, picture frames, frames that move up and down or in and out) and streaked and dusty glass surfaces (mirrors, windows, windshields) that diffuse light and make it difficult to see anything clearly or directly. The look is rarefied, almost too ethereal, as if Smiley’s favorite painter would be Agnes Martin.
The movie’s best joke is that chaos exists only within Control’s flat, glimpsed just twice—before his fall and right after his death. Control is also the only character who gives full vent to his anger and frustrations. Hurt is memorable in the role, as is Kathy Burke (the star of Nil by Mouth , the only film Oldman has directed) as a former MI6 researcher, fired by the team that brings down Control because she’s come to the same conclusion that he did: “There is a mole right at the top of the Circus. He’s been there for years.” (When the plot is as complicated as this one, repetition is helpful.) The supporting cast is exceptional all around, although those playing the good guys—Hurt, Burke, Strong, and two of British cinema’s most eccentrically attractive rising stars, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch—are more vivid and nuanced than the suspected bad guys, who are merely nasty and curdled to the core.
But the movie belongs to Oldman, and anyone who wants to understand what movie acting is at its greatest should take more than one look at it. His Smiley is in a liminal zone between middle and old age. Certainly he has more past than future, and the particulars of that past infuse every gesture and word and especially his silences, which are frequent and long. His voice, which echoes Control’s way of speaking, is like steel sheathed in silk. His gait is feline, despite arthritic knees. His three-piece suits are perfectly tailored. The Cheshire Cat grin that once must have lit up his face is now just a memory etched in the muscles at the corners of his mouth.
His practice is to betray nothing himself, especially not his feelings about being betrayed, which he often has been. Smiley’s vulnerable spot is his unrequited love for his wildly adulterous wife, Ann. In both the novel and TV series, it’s mostly a gimmick—an easy way to show that Smiley has feelings. In the movie, Smiley yearns for Ann, whose face is glimpsed only for a second in profile, in a way that is truly heartbreaking and says everything about what happens in a relationship when one partner wrests all the sexual power from the other. There are three major scenes in which Smiley cannot, as it were, contain himself. The first is when he drunkenly describes his first encounter with his nemesis, Karla, a top man at the KGB. Another is his final confrontation with the Mole, whose betrayals are as much personal as political.
But the most wrenching and brutal is when, at a Circus Christmas party—one of the best scenes in the movie and one that’s not in the book—Smiley glimpses through a glass door the hands of a man he loathes all over his wife’s beautiful ass. A man in a Santa Claus costume wearing a Lenin mask has just taken the stage and all the assembled British spooks have risen to their feet to sing the Internationale. Smiley leans against the door gasping as if he’s been punched in stomach. His world is turning upside down and he has lost everything he values. It would have been a mercy—and a necessity if almost any actor other than Oldman were playing the role—for the director to pull the camera back, but instead he shoots Smiley’s crumbling face from three angles, all of them too close to hide anything. Acting, as they say, is reacting, and as reaction shots go, this one is at the top of the list.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy opens in theaters on Friday, December 9.