The intersection of three masters of their craft has resulted in a magnificent treatment on the perennial subject of lying for gain.
John le Carré’s pivotal novel of the George Smiley series as envisioned by the reluctant filmmaker Tomas Alfredson only needed an introspective, intense, briefly intimate performance to complete this winning trifecta, getting all of that and more with Gary Oldman’s note-perfect portrayal of the world’s most thoughtful secret agent.
As one of the executive producers (managing to save an extra dollar during a cameo appearance at the eventually devastating Christmas party flashbacks), Le Carré had more control than most novelists, many of whom end up wondering whatever happened to their book in the transformation to film. In Alfredson’s capable hands, there’s little tinkering with the deeply woven narrative fabric save and except for an ending which doesn’t leave quite enough in doubt even as its final taste is uncharacteristically saccharine. Beyond that, the production is an atmospheric gem, building upon rather than competing with the BBC’s fabled 1979 TV miniseries, featuring Alec Guinness at the top of his game, set and match.
This time, the big screen is awash in virtually every colour under the sun. Those with a taste for crimson blood and literal guts are served up four large helpings as a kidnapping goes wrong, revenge is taken (the litany of buzzing flies feasting on the victim’s entrails deftly balanced by a solitary bee whose sting can only be averted by Smiley’s quick-thinking action—a subliminal metaphor in the early going) or an interrogation which metes out final punishment much to the horror of the detainee.
All manner of leathery browns, gleaming dark wood and 12-year-old scotch fill the corridors of power and the private dwelling of Control (John Hurt is nothing short of superb as the wily spymaster who must himself be dispatched once he begins to ferret out a mole from within the so aptly named Circus).
Warms golds and yellows briefly lighten the settings whether in Istanbul or City of Light before the next dastardly consequence inevitably unfolds.
The lushly green English countryside is reserved for the new domain of resurrected agent-turned-boys-school-teacher (playing Jim Prideaux, Mark Strong is wonderfully discreet as his personal predilections come home to roost), effectively complemented by Benedict Cumberbath’s take on Peter Guillam, Smiley’s young surrogate on the “inside” who must tidy up his own affairs in a heart wrenching scene that reminds again that—in the early ‘70s and to a lesser degree now—the love that dare not speak its name could be just as dangerous as long guns.
Most of the shades of grey and crisp whites can be found on the ticker tape messages, starched shirts and file cabinets of “our side” whose secrets and codes keep hundreds awake at night or, when breached, assures deep, permanent sleep.
Perhaps the best colours of all come from Alberto Iglesias’ original score, notable for dry-as-British-understatement strings, clarinets most svelte and especially effective trumpet lines (Andy Crowley) that truly laugh in the face of death.
The supporting cast follows the lead of the principals, particularly Kathy Burke as Connie—another booze guzzling confidante—and Percy Jones playing Control’s successor, Percy Alleline, with just the right mixture of arrogance, bullying and unwitting stupidity.
It’s difficult to describe just how well Oldman has gotten into and under the skin of the unlikely hero. Magically, it’s the largely unseen characters that provide silent foils to Smiley’s painful past and, perhaps, slight hope for the future.
Recollecting his only meeting with Russian nemesis Karla to Guillam, Oldman uses every tick and wrinkle of his expressive visage then sends the reminiscence over the dramatic top with a head shot (expertly captured by Hoyte Van Hoytema) that allows viewers to see into his mind, framed by extra-wide-lens glasses and pupils that appear to peek right into his soul. It’s but one of many unforgettable moments in a film that is at one with Le Carré’s desperate world where nothing turns out as expected. JWR