It’s fitting that Tomas Alfredson and Gary Oldman’s commentary on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is conducted in hushed tones, because quietness is crucial to the film’s success. Author John le Carré’s world is one where wars are fought not with bangs but whispers, and vital plot information about George Smiley’s hunt for a mole in the Circus, Britain’s secret service HQ, isn’t so much perceived as overheard.
No wonder Alfredson wryly notes that their commentary is vital because the film is “too complicated to see without us.”
You’ll need sharp eyes, too, with Smiley’s owlish glasses not merely a symbol of surveillance but, thanks to a change of spectacles, a handy guide to keeping pace with the story’s fragmented chronology.
Smiley’s people hide in plain sight, submerged in the murk of Alfredson’s vivid production design, a nightmare of florid, decaying décor and nicotine-stained colours. These aren’t flamboyant 00-agents but real spies, whom it takes skill to unmask as anonymity is second nature.
Anonymity? This is a prestige movie buckling under the greatness of its cast. Yet the actors approach their roles like grandmasters, circling each other with patience and mutual admiration – Oldman admits suffering fan-boy nerves working with his hero John hurt.
The material demands restraint, a contest in one-downmanship. so Tom Hardy visibly diminishes into the hippie-ish Ricki Tarr, Mark Strong abandons villainous fireworks to play Jim Prideaux, and Benedict Cumberbatch, playing Smiley’s lieutenant Peter Guillam, swaps Sherlock for Doctor Watson. There’s no weak link, and it’s a democratic playing field that level-pegs the oft-overlooked Toby Jones with A-lister Colin Firth.
But the king of underplaying is Oldman, who approaches Smiley’s “economy of energy” with the precision of a watchmaker. The minutest adjustments in posture or demeanour become, in this context, set-pieces of astonishing action. Oldman’s first line arrives 17 minutes into the film and, when he raises his voice, it’s more shocking than anything he did as a hollywood villain.
Alfredson, too, achieves greatness through stealth. After Let The Right One In, he might easily have stayed in the horror ghetto or been fast-tracked into mainstream banality. Yet in his own cloak-and-dagger manoeuvre, he’s resisted defecting to Hollywood and sneaked away for a london stopover.
The result – even if it is, at times, “too complicated” – compares not only with the great le Carré adaps but that rare elite of movies (like Polanski’s Repulsion or Antonioni’s Blow Up) where a European auteur arrives in Britain and slices open the capital’s dingy underbelly.