DIRECTED BY TOMAS ALFREDSON
STARRING: GARY OLDMAN, BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH, TOM HARDY, TOBY JONES, COLIN FIRTH, CIARAN HINDS, DAVID DENCIK, KATHY BURKE, STEPHEN GRAHAM, SVETLANA KHODCHENKOVA with SIMON McBURNEY and JOHN HURT
Imagine a James Bond title sequence. Bond on his way into a mission most definitely involving killing – double agents, men who know too much – whoever. He’d be all stealth and slickness on his way in, helter-skelter on the return trip. There is no easy way out. Five minutes of Steve McQueen styled muscle-car action, a couple of explosions and a triumphant stance, we’d have the title credits roll, of girls and guns and maybe even gold. A brief post-title, pre-introduction scene would feature Bond being told off by a half-amused-half-startled Judi Dench (a.k.a. ‘M’), words he’d conveniently dust off his blazer. Before we know it, he’d be on his next mission, stepping into the actual storyline.
‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ starts not too differently. Control (John Hurt), head of the British Secret Service, gives laconic instructions to field agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) about meeting up with a Hungarian counterpart who claims he has information about a Mole in their midst. Prideaux walks the streets in Budapest and meets the man at an open-air cafeteria where the waiter leaves a blotch of sweat on the table-cloth. He’s walked into trouble. An Old Lady at a window high above knows as much. Prideaux turns, paces away from the table and gets shot in a futile attempt at fleeing. The waiter wields the gun, he’s got it right only the second time, the first hitting a woman as she breastfeeds her infant. There’s a painful frame showing the child alive when the mother isn’t.
The operation having gone disastrously wrong, Control is unanimously asked to step down by his deputies, agents Percy ‘Tinker’ Alleline (Toby Jones), Bill ‘Tailor’ Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy ‘Soldier’ Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Toby ‘Poorman’ Esterhase (David Dencik) upon his disagreement with them going for ‘Operation Witchcraft’ involving an influx of Soviet intelligence for British nothings, in turn used as leverage to obtain American intelligence. It’s pitched to him as a ‘treasure chest.’ Control calls it nonsense. We then have an ‘out with you and your ideas’ moment where Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and Poorman lose Control, decidedly. Tinker takes top spot as replacement. Control keeps his aging smirk and the faith of a colleague and an old friend in George Smiley (Gary Oldman).
The Bond operative, thus, splits four ways, where Control is an ‘M’ who takes the fall and takes his man with him. The title sequence is still a smooth jazz number as is most of the soundtrack and the credits roll on top of clippings of a weary, womanless and out-of-work Smiley getting used to newly-acquired idleness. He is, obviously, re-hired. Once an agent, he turns NOC, looking into the Circus’ affairs, instructed to catch the Mole. He asks for and gets the assistance of Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch, who looks like a young Malcolm McDowell). Armed with both humility and ability to do everything the man asks him to, Guillam and Smiley work their way through the informants in Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke), phone-attendant Jerry Westerby (Stephen Graham) and the unorthodox (and thus, crucial) Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy, delightful).
Smiley is a sort of real-time Bond. The film even says that loud. There’s a party that Smiley keeps recollecting – a source of valuable information as we come to know late into the film. One such scene at the party has ‘the Second Best secret agent’ playing in the background as everyone sings along. Smiley doesn’t, but he’s kept in focus until fade-out. The song, as I learn, is from the Bond-wannabe ‘Licensed to Kill’ (1965), its usage suggesting the film and its makers’ awareness of the standard they had set out to defy.
But ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ is not a parody. It’s a well-paced and neatly crafted suspense thriller that never gets out of Stealth Mode; a stronger comparison to ‘the Ghost Writer’ than ‘the Ides of March’ was. It’s actually a sort of equivalent. Both are translations of existing text (a 1974 John La Carre novel and a 1979 television series with Alec Guinness playing Smiley) to screen with the help of succinct performances by a galaxy of stars. The difference is the man in the middle, where the gritty and giant-killer in Stephen Meyers (as played by Ryan Gosling) is replaced by the wiser, more venerable Smiley, the stakes being higher and the consequences – more brutal.
Gary Oldman has the air of an Agent-turned-Watchdog, a subconscious advocate of protocol that he’s tried, tested and is tired of. Like Morgan Freeman in Fincher’s ‘Se7en’, but subtler. It’s amusing how different this performance is from his usual of recent times Jim Gordon, and how little he has actually done to make it look so. He keeps his accent, his natural gray. He acts his age – even older. There’s inherent warmth in him, a droopiness that endears. No one can play tired and wise better than Oldman can. A more physical performance could call for Liam Neeson. Oldman here is tailormade.
Bridget O’Connor (died of cancer and has this film dedicated to her) and husband Peter Straughan write the film to be the typical hard-to-understand-but-slow-enough-to-keep-track-of drama with dialogues that half-explain what’s going on, the rest left to flashbacks woven into a steady narrative. With the number of characters and the nature of plot, the details do get confusing at times. But Tomas Alfredson (‘Let the Right One in’), with poise in intensity on the lines of the great Polanski, prioritizes to set things straight. The film conveys. It doesn’t affect you; it’s not too much of a surprise. But it succeeds in bringing the movie-spy to fit the shoes of an everyday man - as lonesome, over-worked and wise that he doesn’t do any actual killing. And in that, as far as I know, it’s a first.