It is primarily the story of the hunt for a mole within the Secret Service of the 1970s but there is far more at play here. Alfredson keeps the drive of the main plot in the forefront while slowly building up the complex crosshatch of personal and professional agendas which is fertile ground for the select group of actors the Swedish director has assembled.
Alfredson’s evocation of this vanished world of ‘Wet Tweed’ espionage is particularly satisfying now that we are post-Bourne and used to having our spy thrillers cluttered with technology and delivered with rapid fire editing and awash with steadicam use.
The film is old-fashioned in the best possible way, and through the steady pacing Alfredson allows the details of Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor’s screenplay to build to a satisfying climax. As the curtain is slowly and deliberately pulled back by Alfredson far more emerges than the reveal of a traitor: the abject loneliness of the work, the archaic manner in which the soldiers of the Cold War operate against the seemingly overwhelming opposition, the loss of identity and control (and Control) are all factors which have played heavily into the film thus far and provide a far greater pay off than a simple unmasking.
The illustrious cast is the film’s main draw, no doubt, however the quality of the source material and, crucially, the adaptation renders each character fully, with hints of true and hidden motives distilled perfectly to a glance, or with only a single exchange necessary to convey, if not the main narrative, then the murky context we find ourselves in. It’s a dizzying display and evidence that although the direction and adaptation may be overlooked when you consider the talent on-screen, who are all deserving of the praise they are getting. This film succeeds because it refuses to show off, to wave its fantasy cast in the face of the audience, and importantly it never relies on the expectation such a cast, and such a project, brings with it. Alfredson’s confidence in the material and his ability provides a solid foundation for this film.
Of the cast Gary Oldman stands out as the ghost-like Smiley, whose weary retired agent picks through the bones of the investigation with a heavy heart and a pin-sharp mind. His relationships at home and at work crumble to dust before his eyes, and though there is a sense that in uncovering the mole he will be doing his bit to repair the cracks of the broken Secret Service, Oldman brilliantly conveys the futility of it all. Despite the victory no-one is better off, or wiser, at journey’s end.
Alfredson’s previous film was the acclaimed Let the Right One In and there are obvious similarities at play with his latest work. Both adaptations, both period pieces, both turning the current conventions of the genre (in film at least) on its head. Let the Right One In eschewed the demonic rush and sexual bloodlust of the Vampire mythology in favour of what was, at its heart, a family drama and likewise here there are no wise cracking henchmen or car chases through exotic locations with gun battles conducted at a hundred miles an hour. Instead we have a brilliantly revealed puzzle, and only in the end, when the final moves are made, are we able to step back and see the full picture.
I was not expecting the emotional punch it gave me as it was, at times, a thoroughly bloodless experience. It is only the sad plight of Tom Hardy’s fledgling agent Ricki Tarr and moments of Smiley’s domestic issues fractionally breaking the surface of his stoic manner which give us any human connection to the events which play out early on. When the reveal of the mole comes it comes slowly and without fanfare, as if the slow rot of the whole affair has worn down the players and the unspoken desire for there to have been no mole is spent.
Highlights for me include seeing the great Kathy Burke back on screen, Stephen Graham in his small, but crucial, role more than held his own and Benedict Cumberbatch joins Tom Hardy as the film’s biggest surprises, both showing a depth of character and ability that we’ve not seen from either actor before. The production design was flawlessly evocative without ever coming close to parody and it is in the details where you’ll find the treasure – the use of a jaunty George Formby song making its way through the official channels of communication at a crucial moment is one such detail; Delicatessen this, most definitely, is not.
Intelligently filmed and beautifully paced, this is a triumph for Alfredson and his cast with Oldman succeeding in making the character of George Smiley his own. It deserves to be seen by as many people as possible, for it is not often that you see a film which gets it so right.