December 16, 2011
Reviewed by Marc Glassman
After premiering at the prestigious Venice film festival in August, this adaptation of a John le Carré thriller opened to excellent box-office results in the U.K. So far, it’s grossed over $20 million in England and select locations in Europe.
Cold War spy vs. spy—pure and complex
Incredibly convoluted as befits a classic Le Carré espionage tale, it’s about the efforts of one faction in British intelligence in the 1970s to ferret out a traitor, who has become a prime English agent while really being a Soviet spy.
At the beginning of the tale, George Smiley, the quietly brilliant stalwart British spy is removed from official command of the “Circus” along with his boss and mentor Control after a key agent Prideaux is shot and nearly killed in Communist Hungary. Control dies in disgrace but Oliver Lacon, the minister of intelligence, brings back Smiley to investigate the on-going rumours that a mole has long since penetrated the “Circus.” Working with agents Ricki Tarr and Peter Guillam, Smiley tries to figure out who the traitor is: “Tinker” Alleline, who has replaced Control as the #1 spy master; “Tailor” (and very upper crust) Haydon, “Soldier” Bland or “Poorman” Esterhase. Through a series of machinations, Smiley succeeds in uncovering the traitor—who, is, of course, an old colleague and former compatriot.
The film features a who’s who of British character actors, ranging from Gary Oldman to Colin Firth to Simon McBurney. To call what they do “fine” is an understatement. Unfortunately, the complex script gives them little to show emotionally. The two standout characters in terms of the script are Ricki Tarr, a bold, sexy agent in love with a Russian spy and Guillaum, a closeted, stylish upper-class spy and patriot. Tom Hardy (Tarr) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Guillaum) seize their opportunities and make the most of them.
Tomas Alfredson, the Swedish director most known for the adolescent vampire character study Let the Right One In delivers a solid effort with this, his first English language film. If it all feels a bit cold and complex, that’s the proper feel for the movie. Alfredson keeps things moving briskly and stays out of the way of some fine actors.
This is a very solid British spy thriller. I remember with fondness not only the book but also the original British TV mini-series, which starred a perfectly cast Alec Guinness as Smiley. Was it worth remaking? I suppose so but, quite frankly, it’s possible that a young audience today will be baffled by the complicated moral landscape created by Le Carré back in the days of the Cold War.