So Cool, So Fresh, So Very British
The Circus, the top echelon of the British intelligence service circa 1973, has been infiltrated by a mole, a spy working for the Russians who has infiltrated the inner circle. The head of the service, Control (John Hurt), sends Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary to meet with an agent who may be able to reveal the name of the mole, but their cover is blown and Prideaux is shot. As a result of the botched operation, both Control and his top deputy, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), are forced into retirement. But rumors of the mole persist, and Smiley is brought back to ferret him out, assisted by Peter Guillem (Benedict Cumberbatch, this year’s hottest young British actor). It’s Guillem’s protégé, Ricki Tarr, who first learned about the possible mole, but his reports were swept under the rug and Tarr has disappeared. Before his apparent death, Prideaux had started to unravel the mystery of the mole, suspecting the entire inner cabinet of the Circus, played by Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, Colin Firth and David Dencik, as well as Smiley himself. For them, the Russian threat seems abstract at best. What matters is power, also knowledge, control of information and, oh yes, power, which they gain by demonstrating that they have the goods — genuine sources providing top-secret information (legitimate or otherwise). The film is visually rich: dark, shadowy, nicely underplaying the early ’70s styles. The men speak cryptically, and scenes are cut short as if to protect secret information. For such a serious movie, there are some neat visual jokes. Pairing Hinds and Jones is one: early in the movie, the very tall, hound-faced Hinds follows the very short, pug-faced Jones up a staircase, towering above him even from a lower stair. All the actors’ faces look crumpled and hangdog. Even Firth looks exhausted from what seems to be a meaningless fight with nothing apparently at stake other then the right to sit at the table and eke a few extra pounds out of the budget. The movie jumps forward and backward in time, returning again and again to a debauched office Christmas party at which Smiley discovers his wife is having an affair with a colleague. Scenes are interestingly truncated: a first line stands in for an entire scene, especially early on when a lot of exposition needs to be squeezed in quickly. It’s a neat trick, thought it’s a bit disorienting when the film suddenly slows down to tell the story of Tarr’s encounter with a beautiful Russian woman who has “treasure” to reveal in exchange for protection. Almost every actor in the large cast has a standout moment, revealing, variously, moral rot, power madness, craven cowardice or, in Strong’s case, a core of humanity behind the spycraft. Strong usually plays one-dimensional baddies and this more nuanced character is his finest performance in many years. Cumberbatch has several remarkable scenes, too. In one he realizes his secret private life is about to be exposed, forcing him to “clean house,” demonstrating that nobody in this world can sustain a personal relationship. But Oldman, as the carefully controlled career agent Smiley, carries the film. His face, masklike and tight, is often shot in ultra closeup, all the acting taking place in his watchful eyes, nearly hidden behind huge glasses. Those more familiar with the book (by John le Carré) and the previous BBC mini-series may have preconceived ideas about whether Smiley is a good guy or not, but for those of us coming fresh to the story, Oldman doesn’t tip his hand. The threat of Russian spies may seem quaint, but infighting, territorial protection, betrayal and greed never go out of style, making “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” as up-to-the-minute as the day it was written. “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy”opens this week at The Moviehouse in Millerton. It is rated R for violence, sexuality and language.