The film is wonderfully acted. So often when a film generates Oscar buzz when you eventually get to see it all you can see is the cast blatantly mugging for the Oscar committee. Its all showboating and huge grandstanding speeches delivered in the fervent hope that finally, finally they’ll get that elusive gold statuette that they’ve been craving. The acting in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is nothing like that. There’s no OTT showboating if anything everyone underplays their roles. The acting from the entire ensemble is universally excellent and as befits a film about spies where careless talk costs lives so much emotion is conveyed by nothing more than a look, the odd touch, a furtive glance here and there.
I’m a huge fan of Gary Oldman but am used to seeing him play larger than life villains. The corrupt cop in Leon, the OTT baddie in The Fifth Element (a guilty pleasure), a rather camp Dracula and my favourite a white rasta drug dealer in True Romance. He is an utter revelation as George Smiley. Gary has said in interviews that the trick to Smiley is to make people forget that he’s there and he has achieved that wonderfully. In his hands Smiley is this utterly anonymous, grey man. Bundled up in his overcoat and over sized glasses he cuts a sad and lonely figure. He’s a picture in stillness. You would pass him on the street without even giving him a second glance and forget him the moment you walked away from him. All of which are of course the very qualities a master spy needs. Smiley doesn’t even say anything for the first 15 minutes of the film and when he does speak it is in a very particular measured way. There are no big speeches or showy moments with a soundtrack blaring to a crescendo which can be repeated endlessly in award show clips. A moment of devastating revelation at a Christmas party is met with little more than a sharp intake of breath. His re-telling of the moment he met his nemesis Karla is utterly engrossing while at the same time portrayed in an incredibly low key manner. It is only later in the film in a key scene at an air field that we truly see the authority and steely resolve that lurks beneath that benign surface. It’s such a delicate piece of work I fear it may be overlooked come awards season but it deserves not to be as it’s a superbly subtle piece of acting.
The cast as a whole is magnificent. Everyone gets their moment. Kathy Burke is marvellous as the refreshingly salty Connie wallowing in nostalgia for her “lovely boys” (she also gets the line of the film), Stephen Graham has a tiny role but is so hugely personable in his brief moments of screentime that you wanted to see more of him, Toby Jones (complete with soft Scottish accent) is suitably oily and nakedly ambitious as Percy Alleline, Ciaran Hinds (very underused) slightly thuggish as Bland, David Dencik a twitchy study in barely controlled panic as Toby. Colin Firth is suave and charming as Bill flirting with the world around him and Mark Strong makes a very strong impression with few lines as the tragic Prideaux (the limited interplay between him and Firth’s Haydon is the stuff of Greek tragedy). John Hurt does a marvellously venomous turn as Control – all fire and brimstone, convinced of the reality of a mole in his organisation but powerless to do anything to stop it.
The movie is practically stolen by Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch both of whom are utterly superb. In Hardy’s hands Ricki Tarr is both tough, twitchy, hugely likeable and very vulnerable – undone completely by the one woman who has managed to get under his skin, the one woman he wanted to save. It’s a brave vulnerable performance and the screen lights up whenever he’s on.
And Benedict Cumberbatch is superb as Peter Guillam. Clad beautifully in a variety of natty outfits he outwardly flirts with everyone while slowly his life is disintegrating around him. Fiercely loyal to Smiley the scene where he is asked to retrieve items from the Circus is a masterpiece of dramatic tension, when he takes a moment to collect himself afterwards you find that your heart is racing too. However, it is the scene where the reality of his profession comes home to Guillam which just about broke my heart. He never says a single word but with one agonised look manages to convey his utter devastation at what his chosen profession has cost him. It’s a short but very powerful scene which really stays with you. As with the other performances so much is conveyed with so little. There’s no great confrontation when the mole is finally revealed but the look of shock, anger and betrayal on Guillam’s face quite says it all. It’s a wonderful performance which is justifiably getting a great deal of praise.
The film has an incredibly distinctive look. Everything looks suitably murky- its a universe of oppressive orange, muddy browns and greys. Offices in The Circus are portakabins with windows so its hard for secrets to be kept from those within and Control’s office with its hideous orange styrofoam bobbly walls is a study in claustrophobia. A painting with emotional resonance for Smiley is a series of daubs of grey paint. Even the print itself looks like its been covered in tea and kicked around a bit before being screened. It feels like you’re viewing the whole thing through a miasma of smoke. You can practically smell the fag ash and dodgy aftershave radiating from the screen. It’s about as far from the flash bang wallop of Bond as its possible to get.
Apart from coaxing stunning performances from his cast Tomas Alfredson brings that real sense of loneliness and melancholy that pervaded his wonderful horror film Let the Right One In to this world of espionage. It’s a film where silence is used to great effect. So many scenes are set to little more than the sound of a ticking clock. The period details are incredible – so many products (the cosmetics on Ann’s dressing table), clothing & furniture I remember from when I was growing up. The use of music is also compelling. Alberto Iglesias’ delicate haunting score sets the mood perfectly. You won’t hear many recognisable standards but the closing montage of these sad lonely spies yearning for something more set to the jaunty vocals of Julio Iglesias singing a rare live disco version of La Mer stays with you long after the credits have scrolled.
If there is any criticism to be had arguably the film could do with a slightly longer running time to allow for the principal suspects to establish themselves (and a slightly odd sequence with Prideaux dealing with a Harry Potter-esque owl rather jars) but thats the only criticism to be had.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a wonderfully acted, impressively directed intelligent film that completely rewards your attention. Its a superior breed of thriller and I can’t recommend it highly enough.