REVIEW: Gary Oldman Sneaks Off with One of the Year's Great Performances in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Movieline Score:

Some movies come directly to you, begging for your attention if not demanding it outright. And other movies sit still and quiet even as they hold out a hand, beckoning you closer until you've been drawn in almost in spite of yourself. Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy, an adaptation of John Le Carré's 1974 novel, is the latter type.

The picture is so meticulously constructed -- like an elaborate mechanical watchwork -- that details can slip past you if you're not paying careful attention. I've seen the movie twice now, and at the second screening I attended, the guy next to me groused that it was certain to flop -- there's no way, he said, that modern audiences would be able to follow it. But the movie's intricacy, and the way it finds its way into the emotional lives of its characters via (and not in spite of) that intricacy, is what makes it extraordinary. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy challenges audiences to believe in craftsmanship again.

The film opens with a directive, and a botched mission. The story is set in 1973, largely in a dismal and businesslike-looking England that's doing its damnedest to fight off the chill of the Cold War. John Hurt, as Control, the head of the Circus -- a.k.a. MI6 -- sends an operative, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), to Budapest as part of an attempt to uncover a mole who, Control is convinced, has burrowed deep into the organization. The mission goes bust; Prideaux is shot. Control is forced out of the Circus, and dies shortly thereafter; his second-in-command, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), is also pushed out of the organization.

But the government doesn't like the idea of a mole nibbling away at domestic secrets any more than Control did, and so a pompous undersecretary (played by Simon McBurney) secretly rehires Smiley to track and identify the traitor. What follows qualifies, undeniably, as the most complicated plot of 2011. But even if it loses you -- and here and there, it just might, though a second viewing of the picture reinforces how airtight it really is -- it's easy enough to key into the emotional context of each of its nested backstories-within-backstories. Alfredson -- director of the 2008 Swedish surprise hit Let the Right One In -- allows each of the story's numerous characters to emerge gradually but distinctly, as if out of fog, into a fully formed human being with certain motivations and heartbreaks.

The uniformly terrific ensemble cast includes Colin Firth, Tobey Jones, Ciarán Hinds and Tom Hardy, but even among this stellar group, a few performers stand out. Benedict Cumberbatch -- in addition to having one of the most awesome names among British actors -- has built a sturdy career playing supporting roles, though he's mostly been relegated to officious head-boy types. Here, as junior agent Peter Guillam, he steps away from that restrictive box and becomes expressive in a way he hasn't been before -- Guillam is the kind of character who sees and processes everything, even though he says very little, and Cumberbatch navigates those subtle turns with wit and sensitivity. Kathy Burke is wonderful in a small role as the Circus' resident mother hen: At one point she gazes at photographs of the young agents she's helped shepherd through the ranks and warbles affectionately, "All my boys, all my lovely boys." And Strong is wonderful as Prideaux, the agent who's perhaps the most harshly tested of all; he plays the character's desolation and determination as two sides of the same coin.

In addition to being based on an enormously popular book -- Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan have deftly condensed and simplified Le Carré's elaborate, labyrinthine novel -- Alfredson's picture is also haunted by a ghost: The 1979 TV mini-series, which featured Alec Guinness in the George Smiley role. Who'd want to try to top that?

The key to Oldman's performance is that he's not trying to top anyone, not even himself. In the late '80s and early '90s, Oldman built a career out of playing brash roles -- in pictures like Sid and Nancy, JFK and True Romance -- layered with so much acting that you could barely discern a character beneath. But in recent years, he's shown a more delicate touch; no longer having to be the over-the-top kid, the flashiest performer in the room, has agreed with him.

In Tinker, Tailor, Oldman's Smiley is a man who's not just in danger of losing everything he loves; he could lose everything he stands for, which is worse. In one scene he describes to a younger agent how, years ago, he urged a Russian operative -- one who would later become a top spymaster for the other team -- to come to the West. Smiley frames the argument in terms of the man's wife, suggesting that he could make her life better and more anxiety-free. He re-enacts the moment, speaking to an empty chair, as it becomes clear that it's his own estranged wife who's foremost in his thoughts. Oldman is remarkable here for how little he does, for how little he has to do; his performance is one of serene intensity. Smiley's dignity, borne of experience and of making lots and lots of mistakes, is less something you can see than something you can feel. Oldman wears his character's regrets lightly, like a bespoke jacket, a state of being made just for him. It's a remarkable performance, one of the finest of the year.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy feels both old-fashioned and modern at once. Even though it lives squarely in the moment, it could have been made in the '70s, for the way it so wholly trusts its audience to keep up with every minute, nearly imperceptible plot turn. It's like an action movie constructed from glances, suggestions and suppressed sighs rather than gunplay. The picture's lovely, understated score (by Alberto Iglesias), with its whispering strings and muted trumpets, perfectly suits the movie's palette of soft mauves and grays. Even the cinematography and production design, by Hoyte Van Hoytema and Maria Djurkovic respectively, speak in a secretive whisper: The movie is rendered in the colors of smoke, though its contours are solid and shapely, a universe of pedestrian office desks, ugly telephones and overflowing ashtrays -- aesthetically, this 1970s England probably isn't as dismal as the Eastern Bloc, but it might be pretty close.

Yet even in the midst of all those wonderfully mundane trappings, there are touches that seem outright exuberant -- like the orange baffling lining the walls of the central meeting room of the Circus. It's unintentionally groovy, almost cheerful, and it works beautifully as a setup for one of the most exhilarating final shots of the year. It's fitting that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy ends with a beginning of sorts, a first-day-of-school sense of hopefulness. It's a promise of what movies can be when filmmakers treat us like grown-ups.

[Editor's note: Portions of this review appeared earlier, in a different form, in Stephanie Zacharek's Venice Film Festival coverage.]

Follow Stephanie Zacharek on Twitter.

Follow Movieline on Twitter.


  • Charles says:

    Wow, Gary Oldman. Talk about great actors flying under the radar. And to think he's probably best known as Gordon in those awful Batman movies!

    • Jason says:

      You're kidding, right? The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises are quite possibly two of the greatest movies ever made.

      To each his own, but to call them "awful movies", is a bit harsh, even for a non-fan. If you think those are awful, I'd hate to see what you think of the truly horrid flop known as Batman & Robin.

  • dd says:

    Wow....i knew it would be great just from the previews,but after your review i am just dying to see this. It's been my most awaited film this year. also,with some exemplary talent out there in Hollyweird,the likes of DeNiro, DeCaprio,Kidman,Norton,Streep.....Gary Oldman is the one person, imho, whose work is always top knotch....he makes no mistakes and doesn't think any role is too beneath him to give his best.

  • Maya says:

    Or Sirius Black 🙂
    But I agree with you; he's been underrated for far too long. Here's to hoping he'll finally be honored by the Academy this year with a nomination for Best Actor.

  • Charles says:

    I've never seen a Harry Potter movie all the way through, so I had to ask someone who Sirius Black is. And yes, I'm sure Oldman will be nominated. I'm just not happy about whom he's going to lose to.

  • Charles says:

    Well, I take back what I said. Oldman didn't even get a Golden Globe nomination. I still can't wait to see this movie, though.

  • josh says:

    Strange to talk about Cumberbatch as relegated to non-roles given his star turn in the title role of the British Sherlock reboot.

  • steve says:

    I can't believe how this movie blew me away. Gary Oldman is fascinating and the acting from the other actors are top notch. I'm definetly going to see this movie again!

  • UncertaintyVicePrincipal says:

    Here's what's missing, and I mean entirely missing, from this version of this wonderful story. This is the moment in the book just after Smiley hears the voice that reveals which of his colleagues is the mole:

    "Then for a moment one part of Smiley broke into open revolt against the other. ... I refuse. Nothing is worth the destruction of another human being." ... Haydon had betrayed. As a lover, a colleague, a friend; as a member of the inestimable body that Anne called The Set.... yet there was a part of him that rose already in Haydon's defense. ... For a moment that was how Smiley stood: a fat, barefoot spy, as Anne would say, deceived in love and impotent in hate..."

    Just after that Peter Guillam arrives and, seeing that the mole was Bill Haydon, is plunged into despair and rage driven by the realization, only coming to him at that moment, that he had modeled his entire life on Haydon. He was the perfect embodiment of a certain type of Englishman, which of course meant that he was the one for whom the entire thing was a charade.

    To be fair, the earlier BBC drama could only hint at these specific thoughts at that particular moment, however it did at least delve into this entirely central aspect of the story, the theme of it in some ways, about who and what Bill Haydon was and the wonderful ambiguity with which Smiley viewed not just him but everything around him.

    People have written a lot already about how a feature film version of this novel was necessarily condensed, compared to the hours and hours of the mini-series for example. However playing up the one aspect of the betrayal of close friendship between Prideaux and Haydon while ignoring other, and really far more important aspects was a typically shallow, Hollywood choice, and had nothing to do with lack of time and everything to do with lack of comprehension or depth, in my opinion.

    There's a moment in the movie in which Gary Oldman, who is perhaps my favorite actor, describes drunkenly to Guillam his meeting with Karla in the Indian prison years before. When he starts acting out the parts, miming the act of handing him his lighter or offering him a cigarette, it was so absurdly un-Smiley, so unlike anything the character would ever do, that one segment alone was enough to spoil the entire movie. Unfortunately there are many other moments lending a hand.

    I realize that David Cornwell didn't feel the same way about this film that I do, but then I haven't been able to read anything by him in - well, decades really. The "write what you know" dictum was never more clearly borne out than in his body of work. Once he had written about the life he had actually lived, which would take you up to Smiley's People but not beyond, his writing seemed to fall into the worst sort of cliches and lost everything that was wonderful about it.

    I've met one or two others who thought that this movie was a shallow, rather insipid effort, but clearly we're in the minority. Ah well.