First of all apologies for not posting a couple of write-ups I had promised from last week. While Chronicle was definitely a very impressive superhero/coming-of-age tale, Marina, the other film I saw left such an underwhelming impression on me that I couldn’t get myself to write about both. And you can add this week’s Dhoni to that list as well. The latter was seriously painful to sit through and I may just do a write-up for that reason alone but I can’t bring myself to it. However, the actual topic of this post is worth all I am going to write about it and more: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
When the first trailers of TTSS came out, I knew this was a film that was not to be missed. And the primary motive for that was the cast: Oldman, Firth, Hinds, Hurt, Hardy, Strong, and Cumberbatch just to name a few; basically British acting royalty. And that was reason enough to catch the film. However, I have one of those idiosyncrasies wherein I hate to watch a film adaptation of a book which is easily available and worth reading for the depth it offers. And therefore I went out and bought my first John Le Carré novel, and I can now assure you that it won’t be my last.
From knowledge I had gathered from the Internet, I knew that a Le Carré novel was a very difficult beast to adapt as a film and after reading TTSS I realized it was no mean feat. I am normally a pretty fast reader but this was one of the few books where I had to really take my time and take in every word in order to not miss the little details. As the mystery unfolds to the main players in the book, so it also does to the readers and this laborious pace was something new to someone like me who had grown up more on kinetic and visceral thrills. The conclusion was also satisfying because it included no misdirection or sudden twists, just pure logic. It was satisfying in a way I had not known before. I knew the film had a lot to live up to but reviewers assured me that it had been masterfully crafted, and I saw no reason to delay watching the film after completion of the book.
**Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy **is the kind of film you either adore or hate in the same amounts. There is little or no middle ground to be found. And in case you hadn’t guessed by now, I belong to the former category of people that adores TTSS and thinks it to be one of their favorite films of the year. What makes the film so good? I am going to try to do a piece-by-piece analysis of what I felt when watching the film and make minor comparisons with the book as well.
As the film opens, Control (John Hurt) sends Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) on a secret mission to Budapest which goes horribly wrong. Jim takes a bullet to the back and Control is discharged along with his second-in-command George Smiley (Gary Oldman). A few months later, Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), under-secretary to the minister, is informed by Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) who is a Circus lamplighter working under Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) that there is a Russian mole of two decades standing within the Circus ranks. Any one of the current top four could be the rotten apple: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) who has taken over from Control; Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) who is essentially second-in-command; Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds); or Toby Esterhase (David Denick). Lacon and Guillam look to the legendary Smiley again for help in uncovering the mole. Smiley sets to work in researching nearly two years’ worth of documents, interviewing everybody from a past he wishes to forget, and delving deeper into a path he realizes Control had already treaded before.
The one thing I can assure you is that it fully deserves its nomination for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. TTSS is the quintessential definition of a novel that is literally unadaptable. The amount of exposition and attention to detail Le Carré provides couldn’t possibly be captured in a two-hour film but, to their huge credit, Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan achieve the impossible. As someone who had read the book in advance, I felt that they had stripped the book clean and taken in only the essentials, leaving out the parts which are better served in the written format. The result is a lean and mean screenplay that squeezes in just enough exposition in order to not leave neophytes confused while providing enough little nods to the source material to satisfy people like me. Those uninitiated in the proceedings will still have to concentrate and focus their entire attention on the screen because a solitary missed dialogue can really leave you scratching your heads.
Direction, composition, and cinematography are essential for a film like this one. I have not yet seen Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In though I am assured it is a quality piece of filmmaking. Having now watched TTSS, I have no reason to doubt otherwise. In adapting the Le Carré novel, he has chosen to follow the author’s vision to a T and employed a deliberate filmmaking style that relies a lot on slow, meandering conversations and long takes, and that is the primary reason why the film may not be enjoyed by everyone. In a sense, the end product feels almost as if it was shot entirely in slow-motion. There is nothing inherently wrong with that but I can see how it could turn some people really off. Nicely complementing the director’s style is the cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema which has a washed-out, diluted look giving it an almost noir-like feel. It is fully deserving of the Oscar nomination it didn’t get.
I cannot begin to highlight just how good Gary Oldman is as Smiley. If I have to make a comparison, this is a role as difficult to nail as Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone in The Godfather, and Oldman nails it alright. Smiley is a world-weary spy if ever there was one. He has had a rough few months with Control’s death and the departure of his wife Ann and is now asked to root out the mole after being informed that Control was intent on doing the same. Oldman captures Smiley’s laconic style of choosing words carefully and delivering each sentence with long-pauses in-between perfectly. Another attribute of Smiley that would be impossible to capture is his mental capacity. If Oldman cannot show Smiley as a sagacious spy with wits to outwit the best Russian agent, then the film fails. But this is another characteristic that Oldman has brought out in splendid fashion proving himself to be a great on-screen thinker. Oldman is fully deserving of the Oscar nomination and, right now, my heart is willing him to win the big prize for his entire career’s work.
As for the rest of the cast, barring the eighth Harry Potter film and Margin Call, this is the best ensemble assembled from 2011. Colin Firth sheds his good-boy image from last year’s Oscar winning role and slips under the skin of Bill Haydon. Tom Hardy is perfectly cast as the hot-headed Tarr. Svetlana Khodchenkova’s turn as the Russian spy Irina is brilliant. She is on-screen only for a few moments, in comparison to the book where she had more reading time, but leaves a mark that is enough for the viewers to care for her fate. If there was any doubt about the quality of the actors, they can be dispelled here and now. Everybody is perfect in their roles and there isn’t a weak link to be found anywhere.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a relentlessly pulsating film. As the climax approached and the mole was set to be unveiled I had butterflies in my tummy of the kind that only the best thrillers can offer. That I had already read the book and knew the outcome and still anticipated the scene is the highest praise I can offer to the film. That it hasn’t been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar highlights just how pointless the Academy Awards have become. If you are one of those people who haven’t seen this film, I urge you to do it right away. If you are someone who has seen the film but not read the novel, I suggest you do it because, as good as the film is, the depth of Le Carré’s writing cannot be captured within two hours. However, whether you read the novel or watch the film, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an experience that is not to be missed even if you are remotely interested in the genre.
- Banner image used under the Creative Commons License from Wikimedia Commons