The 1979 BBC series of the same name, starring Sir Alec Guinness has always been considered the final word on this cold War set spy novel. So any film adaptation had an uphill task to convince sceptics that it had something new to say.
The fact that this very English story was to be directed by a “foreigner”, Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, added further consternation.
As the cast was assembled however, it was clear this was to be no ordinary adaptation. All stops had been pulled, the period setting nailed down, first class actors in place and a screenplay that had managed to compress this complicated novel into an audience friendly 127 minutes.
The film is set in the early 1970’s and centres around the “Circus”, a lightly fictionalized headquarters of British Secret Service. Everything is brown, shabby and smoke filled. Building and information security is almost non-existent and most of the higher echelons of the service are ex-military, plotting and counter plotting against the perceived Russian Communist threat.
The whole enterprise has an amateurish old boy network feel, although involved in a very deadly game, where torture, murder and clandestine “wet work” occurs, albeit largely off screen here.
The film employs many flashbacks and the story is deliberately labyrinth in complexity, spies spying on spies and paranoia filling every frame. No-one is to be trusted, certainly the US no longer will share their intelligence with the British, as they have a “leaky ship”, a potential mole within the very top echelons of the organization. Handled by the mysterious and never seen “Karla”, a Russian spy-master.
Smiley (Oldman) and his boss “C” or control (John Hurt), have been managed out into semi-retirement, only for Smiley to be brought back to “clean house” and find the traitor. He is assisted by the loyal Peter (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Mendel (Roger Lloyd Pack). Smiley has always been Le Carre’s greatest creation, investing by his own admission, many of his own early personality traits into his make-up. Crumpled, anonymous, inexperienced in love, all knowing and yet knowing little, he watches and observes and is never disappointed in man’s frailties and flaws.
Smiley has four characters to choose from, if he discounts himself as the Mole, which from an audience point of view, we should not. Tinker (Toby Jones), Tailor (Colin Firth), Soldier (Ciaran Hinds) and Poorman (David Dencik).
The existence of the mole had been hinted at but was confirmed following the liaison of Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) a rogue field operative, with a Russian spy’s wife. The film itself commencing with a disastrous “extraction” set and filmed in Hungary with Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), proving that moving pawns around is far easier and safer than being one.
To summarise the plot further would be to provide spoilers and would be difficult in a short review. There are occasions where the full story and motivations for characters are difficult to grasp, perhaps the feel and tone of the film is as important as comprehending every story nuance.
Author Le Carre, obviously spring-boarding from his own intelligence experience and the real life traitorous Cambridge five, Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Caircross and Blunt, all of which is well documented elsewhere.
Oldman manages to channel Guinness into his performance without being perceived as a caricature. On occasions the timbre and cadence of his voice sounds similar, however he has made this role very much his own. Oldman has an ability to disappear chameleon like into the role he plays, all different and no doubt nothing like his “real life” persona. Donning the famous character glasses, he personifies the Smiley many fans will know and love.
Oldman is assisted with a ensemble cast that reads like a roll-call of top acting talent, all performances are believable and fit the production and tone perfectly. It is difficult to imagine that the interpretation and presentation of the source material could be bettered. Whether the subject matter and realistic approach to spy-craft, will appeal to a modern younger audience is less likely.
Smiley is the very antithesis of James Bond, there are no gadgets here, no exotic hotels, no flash cars. Just hum-drum, anonymous people doing shabby, boring, laborious and seedy work, interspersed with occasional acts of off screen violence, amply demonstrating the stakes all participants realise they are playing for.
Was it all worthwhile, the sacrifices made, the threat real or invented. Perhaps only those in the know will ever really be able to judge. In an interview (on the DVD/Bluray), Le Carre suggests that spy’s are and always will be necessary but they should be subservient to the democratic process, listened too but not always seen as a panacea for societies ills and acted upon blindly.
So a story that is fixed in time, that is in many ways anachronistic now but a tale well told and with the highest quality of acting.
In many ways an instant classic, with a mesmerizing performance from Gary Oldman and sterling support from mainly English acting royalty.
However, this may not be to everyone’s taste perhaps, with little action and a complicated plot that remains largely true to the original very dry and complex Le Carre book, upon which the film is based.