First Night: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Venice Film Festival

Not as seen on TV: Gary Oldman comes in from cold in Le Carré's classic

Geoffrey Macnab
Tuesday 06 September 2011 00:00 BST
Gary Oldman brings a dimension to the role that Alec Guinness arguably missed
Gary Oldman brings a dimension to the role that Alec Guinness arguably missed

The team behind the big screen version of John le Carré's spy novel have sought to head off unflattering comparisons with the celebrated 70's television version by publishing a statement from Le Carré himself calling the film "a triumph." Those comparisons will still be made. Several aspects of the movie are bound to grate with both Le Carré and Alec Guinness fans.

Thankfully, after a cumbersome start, Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor develops a momentum of its own. As they become more and more engrossed in Smiley's attempts to flush out the mole at the heart of the "Circus" (MI6), even the die-hards should just about forget about the looming spectre of Guinness.

The casting of the whippet-thin and athletic-looking Gary Oldman as aging spy George Smiley is (at least initially) disconcerting. The screenplay, by the late Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan, doesn't adhere to the chronology of the novel. Certain thematic elements are downplayed. For example, the film doesn't place as much emphasis on Smiley's absent wife, Ann, as either the novel or television series. Her cuckolding of him is still a key element of the plot but the film doesn't delve into the effect her treachery has on him. Apart from a few fleeting scenes with Russian agent Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova) and Smiley's encounter with his wise old former colleague Connie (played by Kathy Burke, star of Oldman's Nil By Mouth), this is a masculine affair. As if to underline the chauvinism at the British secret service, the filmmaker shows Women's Lib graffiti in the background.

Alfredson and his team have recreated the early 1970s in exemplary fashion. The cars, the sideburns, the thickness in the tie knots are all spot on. The London shown here is a grey, damp-looking place. As he showed in his horror film, Let The Right One In, Alfredson knows how to stoke up tension.

Here, it is the tiny details that often register the most strongly. After all, Smiley always notices the minutiae – a pair of shoes not put on properly by a lover almost caught in flagrante, the revealing looks and gestures of senior staff at a very raucous office Christmas party.

Oldman's performance grows on you. He has relatively little dialogue. His expression remains impassive throughout. He is a tall, thin man in a pale mac and glasses. He brings a dimension to the role that Guinness arguably missed. As he closes in on his quarry, he conveys a suppressed aggression and vengefulness that wasn't always there in the television series. His resentment at the shabby way his former boss "Control" (a barnstorming cameo from John Hurt) was treated and his contempt for the conceit and laziness of the new Circus bosses are obvious.

Whatever else, Tinker Tailor underlines the strength of British character acting. With limited screen time, Toby Jones (the ambitious Percy Allenine) and Colin Firth (the dashing Bill Haydon) give excellent performances. Younger actors such as Tom Hardy (as field agent Ricki Tarr) and Benedict Cumberbatch (as Smiley's acolyte Peter Guillam) lead the way in the film's few action sequences. Mark Strong brings gravitas and pathos to his role as the betrayed British agent, Jim Prideaux.

Alfredson's movie doesn't have richness and depth of characterisation of the Alec Guinness version, but once the hunt is afoot, this Smiley Redux turns into a rattling good spy yarn in its own right.

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