A remarkable adaptation of John le Carré’s sprawling, subplot-heavy, character-rich 1974 novel featuring a career-best performance from Gary Oldman.
It’s been almost a decade since the Bourne franchise redefined the super-spy genre. Heavily influenced by Bourne, a rebooted Bond followed several years later. Cerebral spy-thrillers seemed like relics from another time, but don’t tell that to writer-director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) or actor Gary Oldman.
First-time collaborators, Alfredson and Oldman have resurrected the old-school spy-thriller with an impressive adaptation of John le Carré’s sprawling, subplot-heavy, character-rich 1974 novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, that features a stellar, pitch-perfect British cast. Oldman gives one of the finest performances of his career.
Like le Carré’s novel and the BBC miniseries that starred Alec Guinness in the central role, the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy focuses on more than George Smiley (Oldman), a middle-aged MI56 intelligence officer. Far from Ian Fleming’s cartoonishly heroic super-spy, James Bond, Smiley’s a man of few words and even fewer actions. Second-in-command and first in line to take over the “Circus,” Smiley’s forced into early retirement when his mentor and Circus chief, Control (John Hurt), authorizes an operation behind the Iron Curtain to uncover information that could lead to the identity of a Soviet mole inside MI6. When the operation goes sideways, Control resigns in disgrace and Smiley leaves with him. Control’s strongest rival, Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), takes over MI6.
A year later, Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), a senior civil servant with a brief in intelligence, calls on Smiley to complete what Control began: find the Soviet mole within MI6 before the mole irreparably damages British intelligence and with it, the UK’s special relationship with their American counterparts. Smiley’s list of suspects includes Alleline, Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Alleline’s second-in-command, Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), a senior intelligence office, and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), an East European and naturalized British citizen. Smiley taps Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), a trusted junior MI6 officer, to assist him.
Smiley’s investigation inevitably, inexorably leads to the identity of the mole. While the search for the mole provides Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy narrative impetus, it’s also a character study, not just of Smiley, a man dedicated to seemingly fair-minded principles, but also of the senior members of MI6 and a particular, singular bureaucratic mindset centered on the acquisition of professional power, often at the expense of personal relationships and, on multiple occasions, the lives of others, British and non-British, who, by choice or by accident, become pawns in the plans and counter-plans played by Smiley’s bureaucratic rivals in MI6, games Smiley plays with almost, if not more, adeptness than they do.
The action that occurs in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy occurs either offscreen or when it does occur onscreen, is handled with a seemingly effortlessness unobtrusiveness. The real “action” occurs, not with guns drawn or fists held high, not with elaborately staged car chases or property-destroying mayhem, but with words, with the pauses between words, and barely noticeable gestures (e.g., a turn or tilt of the head, a modest change in posture, broken eye contact, etc.). It’s the kind of action that requires the subtlest of performances from an actor or actors and that’s that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy cast delivers.
Stepping away from his more flamboyant, extroverted characters, Oldman brings a quiet, studied intensity to his performance as the world-weary, self-contained, indefatigable Smiley, a performance equal or better than Guinness’ iconic one three decades ago. It’s also a performance worthy of award recognition, but even if it doesn’t win any awards, it’ll be remembered as one Oldman’s finest.
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