My first thought as the opening credits to this spy thriller began was, “Wow, what a cast!” Gary Oldman, Benedict “Sherlock” Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Hardy, and John Hurt? Holy crazy bananas, Batman!
Not five minutes later, though, the cast was all but forgotten — this movie sucked me in immediately, and the actors, Oldman in particular, are so tremendously good I stopped thinking about them as real people and instead became fully engrossed in their roles.
For those who have never read the John le Carré novel, or seen earlier versions of the story on the screen, it’s about a mole in British Intelligence in 1973 and is the first in a series le Carré wrote about an older British spy named George Smiley. The movie opens with a British secret agent, Jim Prideaux, being sent to Hungary to meet with a Hungarian general who wants to sell information to the UK. The operation is blown, though, when the Russians get information about when and where it’s taking place and open fire, leaving Prideaux bleeding on the ground.
Word gets back to British Intelligence, and, amid the international hoopla that follows, the current head of the organization, known as “Control” (Hurt), and his number one agent, Smiley (Oldman) are forced into retirement (Control dying soon after of natural causes). Bosses shift around, things settle, and a group of the top agents, known as the Circus, begin work on a new project that involves obtaining high-level Soviet intelligence material and then trading it to the US government for secrets of their own, a project whose real endgame Control and Smiley had long been suspicious of: Operation Witchcraft.
When Oliver Lacon, the civil servant in charge of intelligence, hears an allegation that there’s a leak in the Circus, he goes outside the group to bring in an independent investigator — George Smiley. As Smiley begins to dig into the timeline, interview the various players, and build up evidence, he discovers that Control’s real reason for having sent Prideaux to Hungary was to reveal the mole’s identity. He breaks into Control’s old apartment and there finds a set of chess pieces labeled with the photos and code names for each of his suspects: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier. . . and Spy.
Though the plot is complex and difficult to follow at times (there’s a lot of jumping around in time, for one thing, without much in the way of assistance in keeping track), I never found this frustrating. Instead, it’s what kept me glued to my seat, riveted by the multi-layered story unfolding on the screen. The acting is incredible — when Gary Oldman is good, he is so very, very good, I must say — and the pacing is perfect. By the end, I was squirming in my seat, anxious and paranoid — is HE the mole? Is HE? Is it SMILEY? And I’ve read the book! (Though, granted, I read it nearly 20 years ago. . .)
This is a great movie to see if you’re in the mood for a bit of a brain game, and one I have no doubt will get even better with multiple viewings. Definitely recommended, and I hope they make at least one more of the Smiley books into a film with the same cast. So much more fun than Bond!
[Prequeue it at Netflix | View trailer]
Genre: Thriller, Spy
Cast: Gary Oldman, Kathy Burke, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Dencik, Colin Firth, Stephen Graham, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones