Inevitably, Tomas Alfredson’s film of John LeCarré’s novel (scripted by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan) is going to be compared with the 1979 TV serial starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley, though there had been LeCarré adaptations (and Smiley performances) all the way back to Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and thirty whole years have come and gone (with the ending of the Cold War and many other upheavals) since that broadcast.
In 1979, the story was contemporary – Sir Anthony Blunt had yet to be exposed as a traitor – and the milieu was grubbily credible, down to the cramped government rooms and tea-and-biscuits details of life inside an espionage bureaucracy run like the rest of the shambles that’s British government. Now, it’s a period piece (like Alfredson’s Let the Right One In), with slightly roomier settings (the Circus runs to a conference room with soundproofing on the wall like a botch-up of a home recording studio and Get Smart’s Cone of Silence) and much attention to 1973 details like Colin Firth’s sheepskin coat, Tom Hardy’s wispy sideburns, the flimsy interim phone boxes that replaced the classic design but didn’t last, and the caravan crippled Mark Strong parks on the grounds of the school where he works away in limbo after betrayal. Hungary and Turkey replace Czechoslovakia and Portugal for the flashback scenes and, of course, the reduced running time means that the mystery aspect (which of four suspects is the Mole?) becomes almost perfunctory (unmasked, the culprit admits everyone knew all along really). The thread about Smiley’s unfaithful wife is also attenuated, with no room for a speaking part – the 1979 version ended with her gently pitying George (‘life’s such a puzzle for you) whereas this (with an eye to doing the next two books in the ‘Karla’ sequence?) ends in muted triumph as Smiley (Gary Oldman) comes out of his forced retirement to ascend to a position of power in the Circus and a feud with his (here, unseen) Soviet nemesis.
One reason for waiting so long to do this as a film was to wait for a new generation of outstanding British character actors, and this fully takes advantage of shady characters like Toby Jones (whose wordless final scene, shattered by humiliating defeat, is terrific), Ciaran Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Graham, Kathy Burke (inspired as a replacement for Beryl Reid, though without the great howled line ‘I hate the real world’), Roger Lloyd-Pack, Simon McBurney, John Hurt (as dying Control), David Dencik and Christian McKay. It has especially clever use of well-chosen music – at the Circus Christmas party, everyone sings along to ‘The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World’ (the theme song to Lindsay Shonteff’s License to Kill!) and the Soviet national anthem sung in Russian, while Cumberbatch’s Guillam invades the Circus to steal a crucial record book to the tune of George Formby’s ‘Mr Wu’s a Window Cleaner Now’ (which makes even a surveillance eavesdropper’s foot tap), while the entire climax of sniper retribution is similarly played out as a music video clip (‘Beyond the Sea’). Maybe, since this is now yesterday’s espionage, there’s a layer of nostalgia to go with the disillusion, and Oldman’s sad-eyed Smiley, swimming in a freezing lake and holding back while others sweat or rave, is a remote ringmaster rather than a tragic everyman.
Still, absorbing, demanding, grown-up stuff (with more talk than action, and more significant looks than talk) and proper cinema taken from a proper book. I hope Alfredson gets to The Honourable Schoolboy, the Karla novel the BBC couldn’t afford, before Smiley’s People: this would make a great movie trilogy.