I have been a fan of Gary Oldman ever since I watched the two most over-the-top performances of his career – as Dracula in Francis Ford Coppola’s brilliant 1992 feature and as the villain Zorg in Luc Besson’s hilarious and inventive The Fifth Element.
Since then, I feel that Mr. Oldman has coasted a bit, presumably getting big paychecks for his roles as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter franchise and as Jim Gordon in the rebooted Batman franchise and various voice acting roles in animated movies.
So, it’s nice to see him back in a serious lead role playing George Smiley in the first ever feature adaptation of John Le Carre’s cold war novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (the book was turned into mini-series in 1979 with Alec Guinness in Smiley’s role).
The film is a top of the line production from Working Title, featuring some of the best character actors in modern cinema. In addition to Oldman, we have Oscar nominee John Hurt, Oscar winner Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds (who first came to notice in Spielberg’s Munich in 2005), Toby Jones (who played Truman Capote in Infamous in 2006), Mark Strong (who played the villain Lord Blackwood in Sherlock Holmes in 2009) and Benedict Cumberbatch who skyrocketed to public attention playing a contemporary version of Sherlock in the acclaimed BBC mini-series of 2011.
Previous Le Carre novels have made it to the big screen with varying degrees of critical acclaim – I am not even going to talk about box office success…we are not talking about Michael Bay territory here – with my favourites being The Constant Gardner (Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz) in 2005 and The Tailor of Panama (Pierce Brosnan and Geoffrey Rush) in 2001. It’s not easy converting Le Carre’s labyrinthine plots into an entertaining 2 hour film and when it works, credit must go to the script writers and the director.
TTSS is the first English language film (and only his 2nd feature film after 2 decades of TV work) by Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, who put an entirely new spin on the vampire genre with his 2008 girl-next-door-who-happens-to-be-a-vampire flick Let the Right One In. A bit of trivia here…Alfredson’s older brother Daniel directed parts 2 and 3 of Swedish movie adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.
The film is set in the early ‘70’s (and therefore must now be classified as a ‘period film’ I suppose!) and deals with Smiley’s efforts to hunt down a mole in MI6 and in doing so, to gain some measure retribution after he and his boss are both forced into retirement after a botched Hungarian operation. The tone is the film is suitably drab, reflecting both the geographical and moral landscape that these spies operate in. However, Alfredson is able to add some dynamic touches through interesting camera movements and placements…there is a recurring shot taken from within a dumbwaiter carrying documents from the ground floor up to the top floor, which comes to mind.
Gary Oldman has been nominated for Best Actor for this role, but it is not a performance which has much opportunity to shine on camera, because the director doesn’t have too many close up shots of Oldman and also because – unlike in The Descendants, where the story revolves completely around Clooney’s character – the screen time is liberally spread across the large cast of characters. In fact, Gary Oldman’s acting in this film is not so much about emoting, but about being able to hide emotions and present the blandest possible face to the world. It’s the subtle efforts which stand out, the way Oldman pulls his lower jaw in and sets his facial muscles to create a slightly different face to the one we are familiar with.
Unfortunately, I don’t think TTSS is going to win either of the 2 Oscars it is nominated for – Oldman for Best Actor and Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan for Best Adapted Screenplay. Nevertheless, the movie is a must watch for lovers of carefully constructed spy movies and for the opportunity to see an outstanding cast of characters working seamless and selflessly together.