Awards season officially kicks off with the impending release of the first prospective Best Picture nominee, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. An immaculate film in all aspects, this adaptation of John le Carré’s celebrated novel more than lives up to the legacy left by Alec Guinness’ authoritative TV version, carving out two hours of taut, intelligent entertainment that’s likely to see plenty of attention in the coming awards-obsessed months.
Set in the mid-1970s, things kick off with the swift shooting of MI6 agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) during a bungled operation to exfiltrate a prized Czech general. Prior to this, Prideaux confessed to the head of the Circus, Control (John Hurt), that he suspected a mole within MI6’s midst, and thus, it falls to retired-ish agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) to uncover the mole’s identity, indicated by one of four codenames; opportunistic ladder climber Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) aka Tinker, debonair, extroverted Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) aka Tailor, bluntly no-nonsense Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) aka Soldier, shrewdly secretive Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) aka Poorman, and then of course, Smiley himself.
The eerie paranoia of the Cold War era has been well-trodden in everything from allegorical science-fiction (The Thing from Another World) to kooky action propaganda (Red Dawn), yet Tomas Alfredson, the wunderkind director behind the marvellous vampire film Let the Right One In is clearly aware of this. Instead, he takes this inherent tension as a given, and aims his focus on a far more intimate and specific type of paranoia, bathing his film in the unmistakable brand of anxiety and dread the Swedes somehow forge better than anyone else. With the same methodical – though assured and utterly engrossing – pacing and style of his first work, we are guided through a layered, complex, time-shifting tale, with a seemingly bottomless rabbit hole at the very core of its mystery.
Sophomore efforts too often result in disappointment, yet Alfredson has chosen his project and his cast extremely carefully such that this is no worry; the film doesn’t just coast slyly on its gorgeous cinematography and pitch-perfect editing. While recruiting veritable acting lions such as Oldman, John Hurt and Colin Firth already near-guarantees a slam dunk, equally responsible for the film’s success is the smaller contributions of several up-and-comers, most notably Tom Hardy as charismatic rogue with a heart-of-gold Ricky Tarr, Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch as Smiley’s put-upon aide, Peter Guillam, and even the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it turn from the extremely talented Christian McKay of Me and Orson Welles fame.
Resolutely, though, the film’s success come down to one man, and that’s Gary Oldman, who has miraculously dodged awards recognition as though his life depended on it, yet nevertheless operates on the front-line of British actors working today. He reminds us of that fact here, with a respectfully restrained, perfectly-played performance, realising the stoic determination of his character, resting behind a stiff upper lip and a smouldering pair of eyes. It perhaps isn’t always the sort of flashy turn that wins awards and brings the house down at Oscar ceremonies, but that does little to stymie its validity in awards conversations; Oldman down-plays it fantastically, and deserves to be recognised.
Enjoying the film certainly requires an attentive mindset, but it rewards precisely because it doesn’t condescend or distil the novel’s labyrinthine plot down to an easily-digested Hollywood morsel; this is a classy, complex entertainment which asks the viewer to keep their eyes peeled, but with direction and visuals this outstanding – and certainly worthy of a Best Director nomination, no less – you won’t struggle. Enhancing the mood further is the also nomination-worthy score by Alberto Iglesias, a mostly calm, jazzy series of numbers which nevertheless knows when to ratchet up the strings and push the tensile buttons.
For the thinking person, there’s unlikely to be a more robustly constructed – not to mention, very British – thriller this year, and director Alfredson doesn’t merely move to acquit through his talents, but galvanise and arrest. Academy Award nominations are likely in the areas of Lead Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, Cinematography, Editing, Costume Design and Art Direction, but the most deserving is unquestionably helmer Alfredson, who sutures together a tricky project with the flair of a director with 10 times his experience.
This exquisitely-directed, wonderfully acted old-school thriller is a major all-rounder Awards contender, and just might secure Gary Oldman that nomination he’s been deserving for so many years.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, is in cinema’s September 16th.