“TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY” (2011) Review
Between the late 1970s and early 1980s, author John le Carré wrote a series of popular novels called The Karla Trilogythat featured MI-6 officer George Smiley as the leading character. At least two versions of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”had been made The most recent is the 2011 movie in which Gary Oldman starred as Smiley.
Set in 1973, “TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY” has George Smiley, who was recently forced to retire, recalled to hunt down a Soviet mole named “Gerald” in MI-6 (a.k.a. the “Circus”), the highest echelon of the Secret Intelligence Service. The movie began with “Control” – the head of MI-6 – sending agent Jim Prideaux to Hungary to meet a Hungarian general who wishes to sell information. The operation is blown and the fleeing Prideaux is shot in the back by Hungarian intelligence. After the international incident that followed, Control and his right-hand man, Smiley were forced into retirement. Control, already ill, died soon afterwards. When field agent Rikki Tarr learned through his affair with the wife of a Moscow Centre intelligence officer in Turkey that the Soviets have a mole within the higher echelon of MI-6, Civil Service officer Oliver Lacon recalled Smiley from retirement to find the mole known as “Gerald”. Smiley discovered that Control suspected five senior intelligence officers:
*Percy Alleline (new MI-6 chief)
*Bill Haydon (one of Alleline’s deputies)
*Roy Bland (another Alleline deputy and the only one from a working-class
*Toby Esterhase (Alleline’s Hungarian-born deputy, recruited by Smiley)
I have never seen the 1979 television version of le Carré’s 1974 novel, which starred Alec Guinness. In fact, I have never been inclined to watch it. Until now. My interest in seeing the television adaptation has a lot to do with my appreciation of this new film version. I enjoyed it very much. I did not love it. After all, it did not make my Ten Favorite Movies of 2011 list. It nearly did, but . . . not quite.
Why did “TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY” fail to make my favorite 2011 movies list? Overall, Tomas Alfredson did an excellent job in translating le Carré’s story to the screen. However . . . the pacing was slow. In fact, it crawled at the speed of a snail. It was so slow that in the end, I fell asleep some fifteen to twenty minutes before the movie ending, missing the very moment when Smiley exposed “Gerald” at the safe. However, I did wake up in time to learn the identity of “Gerald” and the tragic consequences of that revelation. I have one more problem with the film. Benedict Cumberbatch portrayed Peter Guillam, a former division head recruited to assist Smiley in the latter’s mole hunt. There was a brief scene featuring “DOWNTON ABBEY” regular, Laura Carmichael, in which Guillam revealed his homosexuality. Cumberbatch did an excellent job in conveying this revelation with very little dialogue and a great deal of facial expressions. And yet . . . this revelation seemed to have very little or no bearing, whatsoever, in the movie’s main plot. Even Smiley’s marital problems ended up being relevant to the main narrative. End in the end, I found the revelation of Guillam’s sexuality a wasted opportunity.
But there is a great deal to admire about “TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY”. One, it is a fascinating tale about one of the time-honored plot lines used in more espionage – namely the mole hunt. I suppose one could credit le Carré for creating such a first-rate story. But I have seen too many mediocre or bad adaptations of excellent novels to solely credit le Carré for this movie. It would not have worked without great direction from Alfredson; or Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s superb script. I found Maria Djurkovic’s production designs for the film rather interesting. She injected an austere and slightly cold aura into her designs for 1973 London that suited the movie perfectly. And she was ably assisted by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, and art designers Tom Brown and Zsuzsa Kismarty-Lechner.
The heart and soul of “TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY” was its cast led by Gary Oldman, as George Smiley. The cast almost seemed to be a who’s who of British actors living in the United Kingdom. Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds and David Dencik portrayed the four men suspects being investigated by Smiley. All four did an excellent and kept the audience on their toes on who might be “Gerald”. However, I do have one minor complaint. Hinds’ character, Roy Bland, seemed to have received less screen time than the other three. Very little screen time, as a matter of fact. Mark Strong gave one of the movie’s better performances as the MI-6 agent, Jim Prideaux, who was betrayed by “Gerald” and eventually forced to leave “the Circus” following his return to Britain.
Both Simon McBurney and Kathy Burke gave solid performances as Civil Service officer Oliver Lecon and former MI-6 analyst Connie Sachs. However, Roger Lloyd-Pack seemed to be a bit wasted as another of Smiley’s assistants, Mendel. I have already commented on Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Peter Guillam. However, I must admit that I found his 1970s hairstyle to look a bit artificial. I can also say the same about the blond “locks” Tom Hardy used for his role as MI-6 agent Rikki Tarr. Fortunately, there was a good deal to admire about the actor’s emotional, yet controlled performance as Tarr. I really enjoyed John Hurt’s portrayal of Smiley’s former superior, the gregarious Control. I thought it was one of his more colorful roles in recent years.
However, the man of the hour is Gary Oldman and his portrayal of MI-6 officer, George Smiley. Many found the selection of Oldman to portray Smiley a rather curious one. The actor has built a reputation for portraying characters a lot more extroverted than the mild-mannered Smiley. His minimalist performance in “TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY”took a great deal of people by surprise. So much so that Oldman ended up earning an Academy Award nomination for his performance. And he deserved it, as far as I am concerned. I consider George Smiley to be one of Oldman’s best screen performances during his 30 odd years in movies. In fact, I suspect that the actor has made George Smiley his own, just as much as Alec Guinness did over thirty years ago.
As I had stated earlier, “TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY” is not perfect. Its pacing is as slow as molasses. I thought actor Ciarán Hinds and the plot revelation regarding Peter Gulliam’s homosexuality was vastly underused. But thanks to Tomas Alfredson’s direction, Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s Oscar nominated screenplay, and an excellent cast led by the superb Gary Oldman; the movie turned out to be a surprising treat and has ignited my interst in the world of George Smiley.
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