A lot of potboiler is stuffed into these 127 minutes. Some plot is lost but the creepiness of the Cold War comes through load and clear.
Breakthrough director Tomas Alfredson follows his indie hit “Let the Right One In” with the challenging task of making the legendary John le Carré spy thriller into a feature length film. “Let the Right One In” was nominated for awards seemingly in every country of the world except the USA. American audiences missed the boat on that one.
However, they will be on the edge of their seats for this long-awaited treatment of what may be the most popular spy story ever published.
The Tinker Tailor novel was made into a seven part BBC TV miniseries in 1979, featuring Alec Guinness in the role of Smiley. This film treatment is an exciting improvement over the TV version. It is sexier, grittier and harder-edged. There is some graphic violence, but no more than is required to send the message.
Screen veteran Gary Oldman (“Nil by Mouth,” “The Dark Knight,” the Harry Potter series) plays retired master spook George Smiley, called out of retirement to look into the lethal matter of a Russian double agent who may have infiltrated M16 in a plan code-named Operation Witchcraft.
Control (John Hurt) was on the hot seat after a black-ops mission into Hungary went lethal and he was kicked out of the agency, along with Smiley. The shoe is on the other foot, now, and a mole has infiltrated MI6. Undersecretary Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) calls Smiley back in and throws himself at the feet of the mistreated former uber-agent.
Smiley is rehired on a super-secret basis. The problem is that he, too, is suspected of being the mole.
This mish-mash of secret agent hocus-pocus provides a paradise of possibilities for John le Carré. Unfortunately, it provides a plethora of headaches for screenwriter Peter Straughan and director Tomas Alfredson.
They end up with far too much material (the book runs about 350 pages) to distill into a two hour film (over two hours, in fact, 127 minutes). Alfredson skips over the minor plots and tries his best to get the main story across while trotting a few of the precious minor characters through, at the same time.
As it turns out, it is the details that make this story what it is. The ice cold, razor sharp Smiley makes a striking contrast to the paranoid, marginally psychotic rogue agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy). This is not just “The Naked City” of the jet set; it is the “All in the Family” of posttraumatic stress syndrome.
Visual scars are replaced by emotional scars; things are not what they seem. As the fly speckled, blood soaked carcasses start popping up, we in the audience feel quite smug with our selection of accounting over international intelligence gathering as our lifelong profession.
Anybody with an ounce of appreciation for the general sense of tension and fear that pervaded those days will love this film, as they loved all of John le Carre’s pot boiling spy novels. The post-war intelligence agent has all of the rueful, thankless, enslaving undercover work that spies have always had. However, they have more of the conscience-cringing dirty tricks at their disposal.
They also have the mandate to use the dirty tricks. People are no damn good. You may have suspected it, but if you want proof, just watch the slithering snakes of MI6 as they lie to each other, and to themselves, so much that they become incapable of recognizing the truth.
The lack of car chases, gunfights and martial arts makes this film stronger than the rest of the lot. Replacing the cheap mis-en-scene is thoroughbred acting by a stellar cast. The cast is raised above the background by the mostly plain-Jane cinematography suffused with those suffocating interiors locked up within the dark, wood-paneled walls of the power elite. Super sound track accenting the understated lines of the characters.
Super acting and production throughout. Too many award winners to name, including Oscar winner Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”) as troubled agent Bill Haydon, one of four suspected of involvement with Operation Witchcraft.
Great cinematography by “Let the Right One In” collaborator Hoyte Van Hoytema (Hoytema was also DP for David O. Russell super-hit “The Fighter”). The combination of flashback storytelling and beautiful location filming in Budapest and Istanbul gives the filmmakers great control over the pacing and the tension.
The film will be criticized for trying to express too much in too little time. The best advice for anyone seeing this film is to read the wonderful book, first, then relive it with this movie. Otherwise, the film will be hard to follow. The nuances in the book simply are not there.
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Directed by: Tomas Alfredson
Written by: John le Carré (novel), Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan (screenplay)
Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and Tom Hardy
Release Date: December 9, 2011
MPAA: Rated R for violence, some sexuality/nudity and language
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Country: France / UK / Germany