Back in the late seventies or early eighties, my best friend Art Franz, turned me on to the works of John LeCarre. I think I only read “The Spy who Came in from the Cold”, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Smiley’s People”. I don’t remember them that well but I do recall that they were intricately plotted, very detailed and focused on the real contest between the Soviets and the West. Smiley was a character that was contained but brilliant and his mind was not really clouded by anything except the game. Alec Guinness portrayed Smiley in a BBC production of Tinker Tailor, that ran on PBS back in the early eighties. I think it was an eight hour project, so you can tell there is a lot of plotting and material that could be visualized. This new theatrical version is just over two hours and there is still the same amount of plotting in it but it has to develop a lot quicker.
I guess I should consider myself thankful that the concession stand attendant had to move over and put together Ice Cream for someone else, otherwise I might have got my usual large Coke Zero and then might need to leave the theater to relieve myself an hour or so in. Had I done so, I know I would have been lost because every moment in the film has clues and paths that will help develop the story. This is a spy story where the plotters are not known till the end, the main villain is never really seen directly, and the hero is a nondescript bureaucrat, who appears to be as ineffectual at home as he is efficient at work. Phone calls, receipts and words repeated by someone that you did not share them with, are all the evidence that we get for most of the mystery. There are only three quick scenes of violence and everything else is internalized or hinted at.
Gary Oldman has been a wonderful actor for more than three decades. I first remember seeing him in “Sid and Nancy”, an unpleasant memory of the Sex Pistols but a grand introduction to Oldman as an actor. I have seen him chew up the scenery in plenty of films. “Romeo is Bleeding” and “The Fifth Element” are good examples of Oldman going full force at an over the top character and making it interesting. He has been the lead, a key supporting character and a passing cameo in dozens of films over the years. Alec Guinness played Smiley as a little more elite and not quite as cold. Oldman takes the character and owns it. His Smiley barely speaks in the movie, he is all reaction and timing. There is a vacuum around his personality that sucks in all the air and makes him feel like the center of the scene even when he has little to do. The end of the film made me want to see him in a big screen version of “Smiley’s People” right now. It is a very good example of a performance that is subdued but controls the story around it.
The intrigue and suspicion in the movie is supported by a cast of very good actors that covey exactly the mood the film needs. Toby Jones (who I think is American) plays the new head of the British spy agency known as “The Circus”, with unctuous superiority and disdain for anyone else. Colin Firth is one of the suspects who also oozes an attitude of superiority in the grand British style. There are so many good performers in the film that it is easy to lose track of the focus which needs to be the story. I did feel at times that a little more underlining would help the viewer keep track, but if you are engaged, you won’t have any trouble figuring out what is going on.
The movie is set in 1973, and the director and art director do a fine job showing us London without all the new landmarks and Budapest (although I suspect it has looked the same for a hundred years) looks like it could be behind the Iron Curtain. This is a well made piece of adult entertainment and I am pleased to say there was a pretty good audience for a 10:30 a.m. showing on a Tuesday. This bodes well for financial returns, which maters because there really should be a follow up using the character of Smilely in another story, but if they can’t get Gary Oldman to return, they should forget it. You need this kind of performance to sustain an intellectual puzzle movie that would not be very appealing if there were not an excellent cast selling it.