I had hoped to watch in its entirety the classic BBC Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (John Irvin, 1979), from John le Carré’s popular spy novel, before writing about the recent, less admired version that the British author executive-produced and Sweden’s Tomas Alfredson directed from a trim script by Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor. However, I ultimately found it impossible to commit myself to the original’s daunting length. In the 2011 version, it takes no time—well, two hours—for British agent George Smiley to rout out the Soviet mole in his old unit, a sell-out Brit whom he properly dispatches, thereby restoring himself to an appreciated position—chief, in fact—in the unit that had “retired” him. Finally, though, Smiley isn’t all smiles; he is as tight-lipped as ever.
Alec Guinness, of course, famously played Smiley in the original; this time around, Gary Oldman plays the character—superbly, I might add, and with enough of a trace of Guinness’s cadences to suggest a single fabric of behavioral material implicating the two performances. Oldman’s is a truly crafty hommage, one that avoids, for instance, the obvious degree to which Daniel Day-Lewis mimics John Huston, thereby undercutting and ruining his own performance, in There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007). Moreover, Oldman is calm and essential, as concentrated as Cary Grant as the U.S. spy in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). Ironically, although Oldman made his sensational reputation giving hellishly mercurial performances, his quiet, subtly inflected George Smiley may come closest to Hell.
I do not care for Alfredson, whose depraved Let the Right One In (2008), in my opinion, services degenerates; yet he seems well suited to the material at hand, especially in deceptively cool long-shots. Some complain about the “obtuse” narrative, the near impossibility of deciphering relationships, the inhumanity of it all; but isn’t that to the point? The Cold War—which only existed because the U.S. was perpetually terrified that the Soviet Union would do to it what it had done to Imperial Japan—was likewise a messed-up, murky “plot.” The immaculate dehumanization and neutered color—Alfredson’s film is evocatively photographed in soul-dead grays and other neutral tones by Hoyte Van Hoytema—aptly projects global espionage, its game-playing code words, and its self- and other-sacrifices, a world from which anything human, including basic morality, has been squeezed out. Ultimately, Smiley is evil because he apprehends and understands this world and manipulates it to his career advantage.
Most of us haven’t been spies; but, if we lived during the Cold War, we recognize Smiley’s world as this film portrays it, and we still quiver at the recollected confusion and chill. But one cardinal rule clarifies everything: Any film in which Colin Firth gets shot to kingdom come merits a round of applause.
By the way, note the quick allusion made to an earlier film of Firth’s, Marek Kanievska’s Another Country (1984), where it is Rupert Everett’s Guy Bennett, who has defected to Soviet Russia, who responds when asked if he misses anything about his homeland, “I miss the cricket.”
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