Friday, March 02, 2012

Reel Low: Tinker Tailor Solider Spy [2011]

Late in 2011, director Tomas Alfredson delivered the first film adaptation of John Le Carre's 1974 espionage classic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to theaters. As a fan of the novel (I tackled it roughly a year ago), I can attest this is an exquisite interpretation of the source material, revealing the real-world spy culture and honest human emotion depicted in the novel while never foregoing the intricacies of its twisting narrative.

Set in the early 70s in the midst of the Cold War, we are dropped into the middle of the "action" as a British operative is sent to purchase information from a foreign source. The deal is compromised and ends with him lying in the street in a pool of his own blood, and leaving his superiors back in London open to infighting and eventually forcing the premature retirements of Control (the top dog of MI6) and his right-hand man, George Smiley, in an internal upheaval of British Intelligence leadership. Some time later, Smiley is approached to come out of his retirement in order to help his former colleagues discover if there is a mole within the organization based on the allegations of a disgraced agent. From there the story unfolds via a bevy of British spy lingo and a series of of flashbacks as Smiley and his team tries to uncover who the mole in their organization is.

Tinker is not a espionage tale in the vein of James Bond or Jason Bourne. These characters exist in a world very much like our own, with high-octane action sequences replaced by tense dialogue exchanges that increase in ferocity as the film progresses. It's a tale filled with codewords, clandestine meetings, double crosses and damning infidelities.

The story is propelled by an outstanding cast, both in reputation and execution. Leading the way is the always-great Gary Oldman in an appropriately reserved performance of protagonist George Smiley. For much of the film, it appears that Oldman is merely coasting along for an easy payday, but to depict a quiet man of intellectual might, he had to present himself in a reserved, silent manner keeping all his inner workings hidden behind a pair of glasses and set of pursed lips. Only in the third act do we see the reveal of the explosive emotions Smiley desperately attempts to keep in check at all times.

I'll spare you exorbitant praise of each member of this extensive ensemble, as all are at the top of their game, but special attention should be paid to a few of the standouts. To no surprise, Benedict Cumberbatch (that has to be the most British name of all time) is simply magnificent as Smiley's protege Peter Guillam. Between this and Sherlock, few other actors are even in his class at the moment, and we haven't even seen Star Trek 2 or The Hobbit yet. John Hurt is perfect as Control, displaying both decisive cunning and sickening delirium when needed. Rising star Tom Hardy takes on the role of Ricki Tarr, a Harry Lime-esque character with a gut-wrenching story of his own that contains the key to revealing the mole. The only downside to Hardy's performance is the wig they forced on his head, which is a complete distraction. But obviously the film's wig budget all went to Mark Strong's Jim Prideaux, the compromised operative from the start of the movie (an Oscar-worthy wig-job if there ever was one). It was so refreshing to see Strong get an opportunity to not play a villain, and he doesn't waste it. Keep in mind Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds and Stephen Graham also appear in Tinker. Stellar cast is an understatement.

But the real star of Tinker is the script. It's frankly stunning how well screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan were able to this adapt this intricate novel. Even the largest fans of the book should appreciate the job they did with it. And for his part, Alfredson filmed it perfectly. Making a handful of men pondering in silence fascinating or sitting around a room doing little more than talking thrilling scene after scene is no small task.

Now for a bit of background. Tinker is the first installment of Le Carre's Karla Trilogy, following the ostensibly meek-mannered George Smiley as he hunts the master Soviet spy Karla during the Cold War. This is the second filmed adaption of the novel, but the first for cinemas. The first was produced for television in 1979 starring Alec Guinness with Patrick Stewart playing the mysterious Karla (yeah, that's right -- Obi-Wan Kenobi does his best to out-wit Jean-Luc Picard for two entire miniseries). That was followed by Smiley's People, the third book of the trilogy, in 1982 when it was brought to the small screen (The Honourable Schoolboy was skipped due to the considerable amount of globetrotting in the story, which was far beyond the budget and abilities of television at the time). Smiley appears in quite a few of Le Carre's other novels, so there's plenty of material for you to mine if your interest in him isn't met by this latest film.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Tinker's plot baffles some of you, to no fault of your own. The novel is wonderfully complex and the script never succumbs to the temptation to dumb it down for a general audience. There's no doubt my exposure to the novel and other reality-based British spy stories (namely Greg Rucka's amazing Queen & Country comics and novels, as well as the early 1980's television show The Sandbaggers) bolstered my enjoyment of the picture, and a second viewing may be in order to fully appreciate how great this adaptation is. Hopefully, this possibility doesn't scare you off, because Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is hardly a film you want to miss out on.

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