There is certainly a huge amount to admire in this new big screen adaptation of John Le Carré’s seminal espionage story.
From the stunning production design with its immaculate attention to detail (even down to the vintage packet of Trebor Mints Smiley toys with while awaiting his prey), the way it takes its time to use that detail to build character and story, the uniformly brilliant performances by a superb A-list cast (including Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, Kathy Burke, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch) and a precision screenplay that manages to condense down a lengthy original book to a manageable two hour film, extracting a rare clarity of plot and theme without losing any of the complexity and intelligence of the source material, it’s hard to see how this film could have been bettered.
Where there are changes and alterations to the original, they’re invariably for the better: the ambushing of Jim Prideaux becomes a nailbiting set piece in a café, and the film improves immeasurably on the BBC TV series of the 1970s by reducing the Ricki Tarr story to its barest essentials (whereas it was previously a lengthy distraction, practically a separate novella dropped into the original.) The Christmas party addition is also inspired, bringing all the characters together in one place and under different circumstances to better throw light on subsequent events.
But for all the admiration I have for this film, I wish I liked it a little more. Instead it’s rather like looking at a pristine diamond: one appreciates the perfection of the stone and the craftsmanship, but it’s still rather cold and icy. I had a not dissimilar reaction to director Tomas Alfredson’s previous acknowledged classic, Let the Right One In.
In some ways the lack of a true passion toward the film is inevitable and perhaps even intentional, given that the film is set in the deeply disillusioned 70s and deals with a world in which lovers, friends, colleagues – even one’s employer and country – are routinely betrayed, and the only defence anyone has is to emotionally shut down. Certainly that’s true of Smiley, who is intended in the book as impassive and almost a ‘blank slate’. The film’s most powerful moments are when this icy veneer cracks – such as the spectacular look of pure love that Smiley tries but fails to suppress while looking at his wife at the office party, bookended by the abject look of despair later when he realises her betrayal. Or the look shared between the “inseperables”, Hayden and Prideaux; or the heart-rending moment when Peter Guillam (Cumberbatch in one of the film’s best turns) has to give up the person he loves in the aftermath of one of the film’s most nerve-wracking moments.
Tom Hardy is another one of the stand-out performers here – his rough, uncouth Rikki Tarr successfully blending the lout with the charmer, the streetwise thug co-existing with the cunning intelligence operative in a way that Hywel Bennett in the BBC version never did. But there are set-piece moments for all the stars who get their chance to shine, save for an oddly under-utilised Hinds whose part seems to have been reduced in the edit to little more than “looking suspicious.”
As for Oldman – it’s hard to think of another movie star who would be so willing or so able to play a part that requires him to do very little for much of the time except blend into the background and disappear for much of the time. Nonetheless he still gets more meat to sink his teeth into than did Alec Guinness (as good as Oldman is, Sir Alec’s spirit hangs heavy over the role to this day) who took ‘inscrutable’ to a whole new level. However, for my money the scene where Oldman’s Smiley gets lost in the memory of meeting Russian spymaster Karla and starts reenacting it for Guillam is one of those moments that is an undeniable coup de theatre but not entirely successful or in line with the character or the film’s otherwise unflashy nature.
Otherwise the ‘star’ of the film is how it looks – and feels, and smells, as the cigarette smoke practically pours off the screen. It stylishly recreates the period in a way that ironically the BBC version never could – mainly because that was filmed in the 70s in which the story is set. It therefore had no concept of the world outside the window being a ‘period’ and the result is just filmed in a realistic documentary style. In the film, the evocation of the period is powerful and flawless – save for the curious use of a very old George Formby song that appears to be purely a directorial conceit even while it breaks the meticulously created mise en scene established elsewhere. It’s a small, irrelevant flaw; but in many ways, it’s that flaw that gives the film a bit of personality and character outside its icy perfection.
To finish, an example of the screenplay’s lovely sense of structure: it begins with Smiley and his boss, friend and mentor Control leaving the MI6 building in disgrace, watched by everyone in the Service. Two hours later, the ending eloquently mirrors that sequence: and the sense of justice having been done and good things possible at last for the right people gives a rare surge of upbeat optimism that gives a surprising emotional payoff after all.