“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is out now in the UK, December in the US
1973. The opening scene of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” tastes like a can of ox-tail soup washed down with whiskey and 40 fags. A dimly lit flat harbours a clammy conspiracy. Stacks of files list dangerously close to overflowing ashtrays and towering paranoia, “You weren’t followed?” rasps Control chief of MI6 British intelligence. The hooks are well and truly in.
Budapest. Two MiG fighters smash the tranquillity of the establishing shot. These are the swords of the Soviet Gods, rapiers of modernity, the very antithesis of the intelligence officers, scalp hunters, and pavement artists employed to steal their blueprints. Men and women trashed by years in the shadows. Men like Jim Prideaux to whom every bead of sweat, clink of a coffee cup, or creak of leather could be his undoing.
“A man should know when to leave the party.” It’s a very British coup at the cankerous heart of the “Circus” the higher echelons of MI6. Like a drowned rat Control leaves the sinking ship to his rival Percy Alleline smug and overbearing in his victory. Control has failed spectacularly; his attempt to unravel a mole has come apart at the seams. Slithering behind Control is the ophidian George Smiley inscrutable as he slides into his forced retirement.
Smiley fills his silent days by swimming in the Thames and visiting the opticians. Was this man really the power behind Control’s tarnished throne? Smiley looks like an elderly gentleman in desperate need of a bowls club or a letter writing campaign. Gary Oldman’s performance draws us in completely. We are mesmerised. How can waiting for a character to speak his first lines be so riveting?
“I’m retired Peter. You retired me.” The speech is deliberate, precise, a whiff of Alec Guinness clinging to every word. With those lines Smiley is back in the game hunting Control’s Soviet mole. His suspects are the cream of British acting talent: Colin Firth as Bill Haydon, Toby Jones as Percy Alleline, Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux and Ciaran Hinds as Roy Bland. Smiley’s dubious allies include two of Britain’s young guns Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr and Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam.
Tomas Alfredson’s direction slowly unwinds Oldman’s Smiley to reveal the reptilian genius behind the oversized glasses. Once he is fully uncoiled his opponents never stand a chance. A meeting on an airfield with Toby Esterhase becomes an excruciating lesson in mental torture and a chillingly pragmatic warning to Peter Guillam betrays the abject misery of the spy.
However a recurring flashback to a drab “Circus” Christmas party lets the audience see Smiley with his guard minutely down. He looks on at his unseen wife Ann sneering with childish delight the thinnest sign of lust and the weakness she instils in him. Through this Oldman evokes Smiley’s description by his wartime superiors in le Carre’s early novel, “A Murder of Quality” “The cunning of Satan with the conscience of a virgin.”
Oldman’s performance is the flipside to his contemporary and fellow leader of the1980s Brit Pack Daniel Day Lewis in “There Will Be Blood.” Both men play the Devil, Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview is an oil splattered Ogre, Oldman’s George Smiley a Trebor mint sucking vampire. Smiley’s ascent to power accompanied by Julio Inglesias’ disco version of “La Mer” finally puts Oldman where he belongs at the top table of British acting next to Day-Lewis.