The hottest jolt in Tomas Alfredson’s spy thriller doesn’t involve bullets or blood. It involves an owlish bloke raising his voice.
Gary Oldman has carved a career in blockbuster villainy by raising his voice, often to foghorn pitch (Leon, Air Force One, et al). Here, he dials it down to almost ambient levels as MI6 man George Smiley, tasked with digging up a Soviet mole in the bleak midwinter of the Cold War.
Oldman’s stepping into mighty, knightly shoes: Alec Guinness etched his most iconic post-Obi-Wan performance onto Beeb viewers’ minds playing Smiley in the 1979 adap of John le Carré’s bestseller, which bagged BAFTAs and bemused punters.
A similar fate may await Alfredson’s version, whose spy games unfurl in a different universe from Bond or Bourne. In place of rooftop parkour and car chases we have a twisty, talky chess match that scrambles the book’s flashback structure even further.
Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s screenplay is a literate beast that doesn’t spoon-feed or tack on spurious action beats, leaving only the odd character out in the cold (notably Kathy Burke’s wistful, whisky-fancying ex-agent).
Le Carré’s themes – class, corruption, moral uncertainty – remain intelligently intact. On the other hand, you may struggle to fathom what the bloody hell’s going on.
Good job, then, that Alfredson’s direction is as hypnotic as silent snowfall. As in his tender horror Let The Right One In, slow and steady wins the race, here punctuated by knuckle-chewing knots of suspense (the opening hit; the closing hit; an excruciating plane landing) and draped in delicate period detail you inhale rather than trip over.
And the cast? Utter class. Colin Firth, icily supercilious as an MI6 big cheese; brooding former agent Mark Strong; and Tom Hardy, impassioned and paranoid as the loose cannon who first learns there’s a traitor among us.
Hardy all but nicks it from Oldman, who mimics Guinness (all soothing drone and eternal watchfulness) before coming into his vulnerable, dangerous own once Smiley emerges as a mouse that roars. Small gestures register big (knitted fingers, a slight turn of the head).
It’s a supreme show of subtlety from an actor we’re used to seeing combust; a performance worth shouting about.
Prepare to lose yourself – in every sense – in a labyrinth of double-agents, deception and damn fine acting from the year’s best British line-up. Oldman at least deserves the Oscar nod he’s been long denied.