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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier...Fine

I have always loved spy novels. Cold War novels by John le Carre and Len Deighton. The stories about the Enigma cipher (WWII). Ken Follett wrote some good ones before he fell into historical triumph with Pillars of the Earth. The James Bond books were not so cartoonish as the films, but they weren't of this same gritty, realistic ilk. Most of the these I'm referring to weren't made into successful single films because they were too complex for a two-hour adaptation. BBC did a wonderful miniseries version of John le Carre's Smiley's People, one of the best of the genre. But films??

Now here comes Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a 2011 sleeper that, from the look of the theater today, no one has heard about. You might have seen a mention in the Oscar nominations for Gary Oldman (yes, Sirius Black! and many other wonderful portrayals). And well deserved!

Oldman plays George Smiley, the aging MI-5 operative, put out to pasture after a disastrous operation gets an operative killed, and brings down George's mentor Control, the head of "the Circus" as the spy agency is called here. But a young agent (an excellent Benedict Cumberbatch of the new Masterpieces Sherlock series) has gotten wind of a rumor that could bring down the increasingly marginalized agency. Someone in the inner circle is a mole - a tool of the Russian spymaster known as Karla.

The file evokes the gritty (yes that word again) shadowy world of the 70s cold war. Hot wars were fought through surrogates, but the cold war was fought on the wet streets of East Berlin and Paris...and Budapest...and in the concrete block offices of London, each side hunting for intelligence - the kind that could only come through defectors or agents in place. Dangerous business. No flashy car chases. And in those days, no dazzling sensors or cell phones or laser beams or Mission Impossible impossibilities.

Oldman's performance is beautifully nuanced. He is a taciturn man. Serious, intellectual, but hopelessly enamored of a wife who is unfaithful. Hearing the reliable report of a mole--a double agent--in the highest echelon of his kingdom's secret service--men he has worked with--grieves him, yet he never says a word to convey it. A masterful performance. And the film spins back and forth in time and place, yet never needs labels to tell us when we are looking at a Christmas party in happier times for the agency or when we are in Budapest watching the fateful meeting and murder or when we are seeing the patient, dogged George unraveling a case for the ages. No being lowered from the roof, no pressure sensors, no leaps, just good work, and a great story. Loved it.

A great cast as well besides Oldman and Cumberbatch: John Hurt, Colin Firth, Ciaren Hinds, and a really excellent Tom Hardy


Carey Snyder said...

Carol - I think the key word in your review of the movie was Sleeper. It made paint drying look positivly exciting

carolwriter said...

Sleeping? Well that's why you missed all the good stuff, Carey. All the intricate, interconnecting threads between people strung out on danger were the whole point! Nice to have a thriller without explosions or Bourne-style car chases/gun battles that wreck half of Paris - why do we never hear about those in real life??? Of course I DO love me a good car chase and a good explosion, too. But I enjoyed seeing something that was about the people and what made them do what they did.