John Le Carré’s 1974 novel and the subsequent 1979 television adaptation starring Alec Guinness are very highly regarded and, while this may be the first film version, there’s a lot of expectation to live up to. Interest really picked up with the announcement of the film’s cast. With Oldman donning the iconic specs, and Let the Right One In director Tomas Alfredson behind the camera, our interest quickly turned into excitement.
Retired spymaster George Smiley (Oldman) is quietly recalled when disgraced “scalp-hunter” Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) confirms old suspicions that one of the four top figures in MI6 is a Soviet spy. Together with Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), he must trap the mole and evade four of the most watchful and paranoid men in the country.
Well, they got the right men for the job. Alfredson is the perfect choice, and brings his downbeat sensibility to his English language debut. The director’s London is not only laden with period detail but is wonderfully damp, brown, and bleak. The world of international espionage is also not portrayed as being in any way glamorous. It’s a world of generally unpleasant men doing unpleasant things from behind a desk. It’s important that the closest thing that the film has to men of action are betrayed, beaten, and ostracized. The exiled Connie (Kathy Burke) may miss her “boys” but there’s little evidence that they ever actually liked each other. The workplace of TTSS is desperately lonely and sad, as evidenced by repeated flashbacks to a gloriously awful office Christmas party which slowly tells you everything you need to know about the characters.
As we’ve mentioned, the cast is a who’s who of British acting talent. Oldman gets Smiley exactly right: reserved, studious, and brilliant. The four suspects are played by Colin Firth, Toby Jones (Frost/Nixon), Ciarán Hinds (There Will Be Blood), and David Dencik (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Firth and Jones make the biggest impressions as the louche, sly Bill Haydon and the splenetic, ambitious Percy Allenine respectively. Then there’s Cumberbatch (BBC’s Sherlock) as Smiley’s loyal Guillam, Hardy (Inception) as the rough lady-killer Tarr, John Hurt as the paranoid Control, and Mark Strong (Kick Ass) as the wounded but upright Jim Prideaux. They’re all superb.
The film does slightly flounder when it tries to ratchet up the tension. As good as Cumberbatch is, the scene in which he goes into MI6 to retrieve a file is never quite as tense as it should be, while the final revelation is deliberately underwhelming. Purists may also quibble about a couple of minor deviations from the novel, but there’s nothing too drastic that’s been changed. verall the film more than makes up for one or two slightly bungled sequences by succeeding everywhere else. It’s an atmospheric, mostly faithful adaptation that doesn’t condescend to its audience and paints a dark, cold, and violent picture of the Cold War, and shows the thankless isolation of the men who fought it.
Verdict: This is a sharply intelligent, wonderfully acted, and beautifully directed thriller.