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23.12.11

For Your Consideration: 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy'

Because I grew up with a father obsessed with books about wars -- Civil, World I and II, and especially Cold -- the novels of John Le Carré were early on pressed into my hands. Like Anthony Lane, who wrote a long analysis of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for The New Yorker earlier this month, I thought that Tomas Alfredson's new film adaptation of this Cold War classic was a fool's errand, after the memorable BBC television miniseries, with Alec Guinness as veteran spy master George Smiley. There are definitely things that both Le Carré's novel and the longer BBC adaptation do better, but the Swedish director's two-hour film both updates the sensibilities of the story (notably on the issue of homosexuality) and remains true to its spirit. It is a brilliant follow-up to Alfredson's last feature, the stylish vampire film Let the Right One In, thanks in no small part to a streamlined screenplay by Bridget O'Connor (who died last year) and Peter Straughan (O'Connor's husband, and one of the screenwriters for another, less successful espionage thriller, The Debt). For all of the film's tautness, reducing all of the characters and Byzantine plot complications to feature length, the pacing preserves the agonized waiting, silence, and unraveling of the spy chess match, making it certainly the best Le Carré film since Richard Burton's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Those of you searching for the right movie to see during the end-of-the-year holiday season, look no further.

The film hangs on the pasty, owl-glassed face of Gary Oldman's George Smiley, impassive and calculating yet vulnerable, as he plays a game of cat and mouse with his Soviet nemesis, the mysterious Karla, in an attempt to unmask a mole at the top of the British intelligence agency MI6, known charmingly as "The Circus." Also representing the old guard is the unstoppable John Hurt (recently reviewed in Melancholia and on stage in Krapp's Last Tape) as Smiley's shadowy mentor, known only as Control. Any of the younger agents -- played, all of them admirably, by a strong supporting cast of Mark Strong, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Ciarán Hinds, and Colin Firth -- could and do fall under suspicion. Officially retired from MI6, Smiley is entrusted with the job behind the scenes, taking with him only a couple of trusted colleagues, principally young Peter Guillam, played by a natty, tow-headed Benedict Cumberbatch, on my radar recently as the title role in the quirky new television series Sherlock. This is mostly a silent chess match of waiting, punctuated by a few moments of horror and violence, handled with terrifying austerity by Alfredson, in a palette of bright 70s colors and muted grays and browns (cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema, production design by Maria Djurkovic).


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The telescoping of the story may make it difficult for some viewers to follow, as many significant developments go by without much time to process them. It is easy to miss things. What is clear is that the heaviest sacrifice of espionage is the personal happiness of family life. Any affection or relationship equals a liability, and more than once in the film, relationships -- Smiley's attachment to his less than devoted wife, Guillam's secret liaison with an older man -- must be jettisoned as something to "clean up" rather than allow one's enemies an avenue of attack, and this could come from either side as allegiances are fluid. Ricki Tarr (the 70s-haired Tom Hardy), a lesser operative who inadvertently finds an inroad into the matter of the mole, puts it best when he says that he wants out of the Circus so he can have a family: "I don't want to end up like you lot." He makes the classic mistake of the spy, falling in love with the beautiful woman, a Soviet agent played by the lovely, elfin-featured Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkova. He is the wrong line of work, one where just a few words betray him and the woman he loves. Even the grave, taciturn Smiley, who does not say a word in the movie's first twenty minutes, has his most emotional moment, over many drinks with Peter Guillam, when he recounts how he said too much at one crucial moment early in his career. He, too, has paid for it ever since.

This film is screening at many area theaters.

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