The career of Gary Oldman – frequently cited as the finest acting working today never to have been nominated for an Oscar – is something of a mystery. In the 1980s, he appeared in British films as disparate as Sid and Nancy, Prick Up Your Ears and The Firm, and rivalled Daniel Day-Lewis for versatility. A move to Hollywood in the early 90s did nothing to stop his curiosity and desire to play a huge range of roles, which included, from 1990 – 1994 Lee Harvey Oswald, Beethoven, Dracula, Rosencrantz and, most wonderfully of all, Norman Stansfield in Luc Besson’s Leon, a linen-suited corrupt cop to end all corrupt cops.
Then, around the mid-90s, something appeared to change. The films became more about the fee and less about the performance. He was still good value as flamboyant villains in the likes of Air Force One and The Fifth Element, and contributed interesting shadings to a Republican senator in The Contender, but an element of vitality was missing. Sit down, if you can, and watch his vivacious, witty, sexy performance in Prick Up Your Ears, and then endure his by-the-numbers Dr Zachary Smith in Lost In Space. It might as well be two different actors.
With the honourable exceptions of his excellent James Gordon in the Batman films, and his noble Sirius Black in the Harry Potter series (works that he has candidly described as ‘the least amount of work for the most amount of money), his work in the past decade has been negligible. You haven’t heard of most of the films he’s made, because they snuck onto the shelves, straight-to-DVD, as if ashamed. There’s been some lucrative voiceover work, the odd baddie in a low-rent film that wanted a bit of prestige, and little else. Apparently this is due to his desire to raise two young children by himself, as a single father. While personally commendable, the world has been waiting for a performance by Oldman that reminds the world of this fine actor’s immense talent.
Now, at last, we have one. Tomas Alfredson’s brilliant adaptation of John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy novel succeeds on pretty much every level, but the first thing that we must be thankful for is that it rehabilitates one of the greatest British actors of the past quarter century. As George Smiley – the frighteningly controlled, breathtakingly ordinary, middle-aged spy – Oldman underplays as effectively and captivatingly as he hammed it up two decades ago. With silver hair, thick-rimmed glasses, and a brilliant, analytical mind, his Smiley is as much great detective as he is super-spy – a feeling reinforced by the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as his Dr Watson, Peter Guillam, and the unseen presence of Karla, his Russian nemesis and Dr Moriarty. It’s a subtle performance, almost too subtle for those who want moments of Big Acting to win awards, although there are a couple of moments –a monologue about the sole time that he met Karla, and the electrifying second when he finally loses his temper – that are about as strong as anything you’ll see in a male performance on screen this year.
The complicated plot is actually, in Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s classy and economical adaptation, made relatively straightforward. As civil service bureaucrat Simon McBurney puts it on, ‘there is a mole at the top of the Circus’. After a botched operation in Budapest involving spy Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), the head of the shadowy intelligence service known as the Circus, Control (John Hurt) and his lieutenant Smiley are forced out. However, when it becomes clear that one of the four principal staff of the Circus, ‘Tinker’ (Toby Jones),’Tailor’ (Colin Firth), ‘Soldier’ (Ciaran Hinds) and ‘Spy’ (David Dencik) is a bad apple, Smiley is recruited, secretly, to flush them out. All this is connected with the sweeping evocation of the failed love affair of junior agent Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) and the wife of a Russian asset. But how?
As you will have gathered from the cast list, this is a very, very classy piece of work. With the odd exception of Hinds, who has very little to do (presumably because most of his scenes were cut), everyone here, often cast against type, rises to the occasion spectacularly. Cumberbatch and Hardy are both deeply affecting as two young men who find their personal and professional lives intersecting to ghastly effect, while Mark Strong proves that there’s a huge amount more to him than baddie-of-the-week as Prideaux. The likes of Jones, Hurt and Firth are all dependably excellent, and a welcome appearance by Kathy Burke produces one of the biggest laughs, when she describes herself as ‘seriously underfucked’.
Alfredson was also very much the right man for the job. Building on the success of his superb vampire film Let The Right One In, he creates a paranoid, anxious milieu in which everyone smokes, nobody can be trusted and where everyone – friends, lovers, colleagues – ends up betraying everyone else, almost as a reflexive action. It’s the polar opposite of a Bond or Bourne film, resembling, if anything, the first Mission: Impossible film if that had had the gadgets, explosions and masks stripped away and the Tom Cruise role had been played by Jon Voight. Still, a good spy film has to have some good set-pieces and there are some crackers here, such as the Budapest-set opening, a tension-building infiltration of the Circus and, of course, Smiley’s Karla monologue.
It’s extremely likely that this is going to figure very highly in the awards season next year (though for my money, I see this cleaning up at the BAFTAs rather than at the Oscars). Hopefully it will prove a sterling success, and it’s actually not impossible to hope that le Carre’s follow-up novel, Smiley’s People, is eventually filmed with the same personnel if this is a conspicuous success. But this is a pleasure to watch from start to finish, one of those rare films that you could happily watch for several hours more, so all-encompassing is the milieu created. And, finally, how can you not like any film that uses George Formby’s ‘Mr Wu’s A Window Cleaner Now’ in a key scene?
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy leaves us Smiley
The premiere of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy this week in London was notable for two reason: firstly, it resulted in a rare public appearance by John le Carré. Secondly, and even rarer, it saw one of The Guide’s contributors stay sober enough, long enough to actually return from an event with some recollection of what they’d experienced. Thus, Alex Larman is able to deliver his verdict. Can Oldman out-Smiley Guinness?
Alex Larman woke up at the tender age of 23 and, Martin Luther King-like, announced to the world that he had a dream. He was simultaneously going to write the 21st century's answer to Ulysses, direct the film that the bastard child of Scorsese, Kubrick and George Formby might have made and become a global roue on a hitherto unknown scale. Then reality kicked in, and the dream collapsed, in favour of a parlous and occasionally sketchy existence maintained writing about food, drink, film and all the other essential requirements of a modern boulevardier's life.
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