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This article was first published 12 years ago  » Movies » Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is just perfect

Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is just perfect

By Raja Sen
Last updated on: December 30, 2011 15:20 IST
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John Hurt in Tinker Tailor Soldier SpyRaja Sen raves about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; it is the perfect way to end 2011.

Some cinema, like the best single malt, should be breathed in slowly and reverentially. It must be tasted appreciatively and gingerly, small sips helping both in lengthening the duration of pleasure as well as protecting the palate from being overwhelmed by the maturity and richness on offer.

Before perhaps glugging the dregs in expansive triumph, that is.

The luxuriant sumptuousness must be celebrated and distinctly evaluated, a far cry from cheaper hooch and its need to potently display purpose.

Also, just like single malt, some cinema can only be truly hailed by those who make the effort to understand it.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, an exquisite and gorgeous motion picture, is one that demands homework. It needs for the viewer to lean forward and pay attention, and ideally coming into the cinema having read the classic John Le Carre spy novel it is based on. While one that redefined the entire espionage genre, it is a dense (and scintillating) read, which, in turn, allows you no laxity of head. I agree, this is an extraordinary amount of effort to invest in order to watch and 'get' a film, but the reward is indescribably, exhilaratingly special.

Having thus been swept off my feet by Tomas Alfredson's astonishing adaptation, I do believe it is a film everyone can appreciate in pieces -- that mouthwatering ensemble cast featuring the best British actors; that heady background score by Alberto Iglesias, sinister and beautiful, dark and optimistic, brow-furrowing and soothing; the intricacies of plot and surprise, that tango between twist and counter-twist; the fantastic production design providing moments of glory in what seems like a celebration of the mundane; the cinematography; and, of course, dialogue so measured it feels laid out by a master tailor -- but that the magic lies in the whole.

The year is 1973. The legendary John Hurt plays Control, head of the British secret service, on the end of his tether. He has discovered that there is a mole, a double-agent, at the very heart of British intelligence, commonly referred to as the Circus.

He tapes mugshots of the five irreproachable suspects onto chess pieces and starts driving himself crazy, getting one of his top men shot, and himself dying before being able to figure out which apple is the rotten one. With the very fabric of British intelligence so catastrophically broached, a forcibly retired agent is brought back into the service to try and ferret out the mole. So the Empire may exhale.

Colin Firth in Tinker Tailor Soldier SpyDespite his last name, this man doesn't give much away. Gary Oldman's George Smiley wears his emotions on the inside. Occasionally a glimmer of pain clouds his eye, but mostly Oldman remains intimidatingly inscrutable and weary, even when tirelessly analysing and going over the clues, over and over.

So much of LeCarre's remarkable novel relies on Smiley patiently listening to various accounts of the same story, and here too Oldman sits and assimilates, an old man kicked to the curb but now asked to play unlikely messiah. It is a spectacular performance, marvelous in its internalization and unshowiness, a masterclass in creating a natural character.

Disgrace, intelligence, the ignominy of being disrespected by his equals, and, indeed, his subordinates: Oldman wears it all inevitably, as if there is no other way. Inevitably compared to Alec Guinness' Smiley from the 70s television adaptation of the novel, Oldman's is a colder George, but one who swims with his spectacles on. He's a hero.

And he also happens to be surrounded by them. The all-star British cast includes Colin Firth as the dashing Bill Haydon; Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam; Toby Jones as Percy Alleline, Ciarin Hinds as Roy Bland, Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr, and Mark Strong (looking surreally like an old Andy Garcia) as Jim Prideaux. Each is an excellent fit, and whether by dint of casting or writing, each character is made real.

There are some incredible women here as well, the striking Svetlana Khodchenkova in the critical role of Irina and Kathy Burke as Connie, the mother hen of the Circus. And Alfredson's true genius -- in this, the first English-language film from the director of the inch-perfect Let The Right One In -- may lie in the deft way he plays each character off another.

The film starts off foggy and dense, a shadowy, unclear affair drawing itself out lazily -- even as the script conversely takes liberties with the novel as it naturally condenses massive chunks of it -- but as the final act comes into view, all is in unerring focus and the narrative spools out loyally, tensely, dramatically. It is a cinematic masterpiece, held in place by a supremely assured performance by Oldman, but is likely to confuse those unfamiliar with LeCarre's work the first (or even the second) time they see it. But pay attention and you'll learn just how rewarding cinema can be.

Like the massive stickers in the film's elevator keep reminding us, mind your head.

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Raja Sen in Mumbai