Probably going to be starting all of my reviews with a personal detail… “I study film!” It’s going to get boring, but fuck it. My dad adores John le Carré’s fiction, and he’s passed that love onto me by making me watch a variety of adaptations as a kid. I think the only one I haven’t seen is probably BBC’s A Perfect Spy adaptation, but I’ll fix that soon. Speaking of the cold war works here, mind. I haven’t seen any of his works beyond that era. Maybe I will. So, it was with understandably baited breath that me and my Dad awaited Tomas Alfredson’s ensemble adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — primarily so we could see how well Gary Oldman would stack up as George Smiley versus Alec Guiness.
I want to say that my Dad is always going to be wrong, and that Oldman’s interpretation of the character is superior to Guiness’ classic turn, due to the edge of sexuality he brings to the role. While the original version keeps this very ambiguous, this is very in keeping with the version of TTSS that Alfredson, O’Connor and Straughan have created, one which shows the latent homosexual undertones that permeate throughout the world of espionage, ones which would naturally happen with men who spend a great deal of time with each other, theoretically anyway. It’s an extremely interesting angle to take the narrative, and one which is brought to the foreground by Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, who actually gives a good performance, a genuine rarity for him. Back to Oldman, who delivers a performance of such clarity and subtlety he makes this fat, ugly man live on the fringes of both the frame and the narrative, despite being at its core. George Smiley is not a charismatic man, but he is influential, and Oldman’s touch is felt throughout the film, even down to a subtle readjustment of his spectacles or gloves. He shows what he is thinking purely through his actions, rarely verbalising them unless he needs to. That, is a masterful piece of characterisation.
But, that lack of exposition from the main character we’ve come to know and loathe has created the criticism that the film is impossible to follow. Bullshit! Everything a viewer needs to know about the narrative is on the screen, it just needs a touch of thought to pull it all together. There are no missing pieces to the puzzle, and the film trusts you to make sense of the confusion and deceit of Smiley’s world alongside him. Along with the frankly ridiculous production design which creates a truly cohesive and rich Cold War London, the mise en scene of the film allows viewers to see every subtle detail of the plot, but never stresses the importance of most strands, creating the most immersive puzzle film I have personally seen. Perhaps being familiar with the narrative essentially gave me a cheat sheet, but I would definitely argue that a fresh pair of eyes could decipher the mystery on a first viewing alongside Smiley without this familiarity, providing they are willing to set aside two hours and engage with the film.
Engagement in the narrative could also be problematic. This is a film which unfolds when it wants to, and is always tacit in doing so, thus I have seen criticism of the film being too slow and ponderous. I can totally appreciate this, but as a shameless fanboy of le Carré and Cold War espionage, I am used to this manner of pacing. It is deliberate yes, but it is constantly burning and plotting away, and I am certain if it hooks you, it will not let go for the remainder of the film, and perhaps long after you watch it. This is thanks in part to the expert construction of the script by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, and the delicate, precise direction displayed by Tomas Alfredson (the magnificent bastard who saved the cinematic vampire with Let The Right One In), but I would say it ultimately comes down to the music and performances, all of which are just below the calibre of Gary Oldman, who was robbed of an Oscar.
But Oscars don’t mean shit, we all know that. The music in this film demonstrates that; I can listen to the soundtrack for years on end and it accompanies a lot of my work at university. It is a fantastic accompaniment to what is displayed on screen, perfectly underscoring the action and magnificently bringing together the fog of the Circus and MI6, and illustrating aspects of the characters from an auditory perspective. The key track on the soundtrack that illustrates this to me is titled “Witchcraft”, in reference to Alleline and his cohorts secret plan, it is a track composed of a bass note and a rolling Spanish guitar scale. It is simultaneously sinister and intriguing, perfectly illustrating the concept of espionage and Witchcraft. And it’s now stuck in my head, god dammit.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as a film outshines the BBC adaptation, and clocks in at a fraction of the length. While the TV series unfolds beautifully, and is fucking magnificent, the film is a perfect shot of intrigue, complexity and smoky spying that sometimes we all need a bit of. Essentially, the TV show versus the film is like a bottle of finely aged red wine and a glass of the finest whiskey in your cupboard. You really can’t go wrong, but I’m more of a whiskey man.