An excellent movie version of the John Le Carre book, with an impressive cast cast of British character actors and Gary Oldman at the heart of it.
At the end of the film George Smiley walks through his front door and back into his house, the house he sits in for a very long time at the start of the film. In the books George and Anne Smiley live in a terrace house off London’s Kings Road but in the film we see a letter addressed to Anne Smiley, Ashdown Square, Islington. I thought I recognized the location, the house exterior looked slightly familiar because there’s too much wall surrounding the front window. But it was only a faint hunch.
After the film had finished, I drove home through Islington, up a very bumpy hill from Mount Pleasant to Amwell Street where there’s an enclave of quite unusual houses. “This is where I think they filmed George Smiley’s house” I tell my friend and point through an alleyway across some railings of a square. That square isn’t actually a square at all it’s called Percy Circus, which is both the first name of one of the key characters and also the name of the Secret Services headquarters in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, this only occured to me whilst writing this. Maybe Percy Circus occurred to the location finders. Maybe, like George I was thinking too much.
Turning into the next square my theory faultered. The shot of George Smiley’s house was across railings, I noticed them blurring the bottom of the frame, and Lloyd Square had a neatly trimmed hedge poking up above it’s railings. But then we turned again and sure enough as we rolled up the street was the door to George Smiley’s house and to our right, a gate the director must have shot from. So we sat there for a moment and soaked up and savoured the find. This was where the film had ended and like the film the find brought a calmness to my cluttered mind.
So onto the film. If you’ve consumed these books, the TV series, you know who the traitor is. If you haven’t then good for you, you’ve a decent thriller to enjoy. If you do know though, you’re essentially watching the form of the treatment.
And fantastic it is too. Tension, looks, light, and the jigsaw of the cast. An array of Britain’s best character actors, appear unannounced, never too little of them, never too much. No political casting of heavyweight Americans, just Mark Strong, Stephen Graham, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumerbatch (who looks very performance-era James Fox), the sexiest woman in British public life Kathy Burke, that’s the supporting cast, through whom Colin Firth, Gary Oldman and John Hurt move. Burke has the line of the film, one of only two expletives. It’s a refreshing film, the sort that makes you want to count the dialogue. I doubt there’s been a film beyond Apocalypse Now where the lead character has said less.
Thankfully there are no huge diversions into manic bike chases or any other such John Woo or Bond style fantasy Hollywood might have seduced them with. It looks and feels superb, a more restrained period piece than A Single Man but if you can get over rooms that are described as tatty and threadbare in the books as looking a little too early Conran where none of their filing cabinets are knocked or dented then you will be OK.
If The Sweeney had been manned by career librarians you’d be looking at their office.
It’s a film about London visually and about a time when turtle necks and jackets and feminist graffiti crop up but don’t dominate. It could have been now really. There are a few CGI’s London landmarks but the colours are understated, greys and greens. In fact the sorties behind the iron curtain see people in more colour.
The secret service officers are immaculate in well cut suits, not by Paul Smith, despite the British knight advising on the look and feel of the film. Like all le Carre’s books it’s a plot about loyalty and betrayal, sexual betrayal, duty, suspicion – although that’s not layered on too heavily. Just the clunky cello-taping of suspects’ mugshots to chess pieces. So awkward it looks real. The private rooms Smiley and his mentor Control work in are dark and busy, dust dances in them when curtains are pulled apart, it was a very dusty decade the 70s. Heavy furniture is covered in files and the odd whiskey bottle. If The Sweeney had been manned by career librarians you’d be looking at their office.
And amidst all of this you have Oldman. Without having cotton wool in his mouth this is his Marlon Brando turn, his silence allows the film to be told around him in recollection. He raises his voice just once, never springs into action, and spends all of the film asking and listening and thinking. He swims a little in the Hampstead ponds rather than walking round St James’ Park as the books would have it but Oldman has the stillness of Smiley the spongelike capabilities that make him the finder of secrets, the hunter of traitor.
Sir Alec Guinness was already one step removed from Le Carre’s literary depiction of George Smiley as a pudgy little man with milk bottle glasses but that George is in this film. Not within the still stare of Gary Oldman’s immaculately dressed performance but in a child’s cameo. Missing presumed dead spy Mark Strong befriends a loner in the boarding school he is pensioned off to, ~”we make the best watchers us loners” he says to the small pudgy kid who doesn’t fit in. That’s George Smiley. It is not the only knowing nod, there’s a touch of the often-overlooked finale of Get Carter and Peter O’Toole’s Rogue Male, and yet even then you couldn’t really describe this moment as action.
The interiors are spacey where the circus was pokey but it’s cinematic treasure to use a line from the film. The film creates a sense of calm in the viewer, music plays throughout, Oldman says very little and in doing so we are never lost in complication. So the film creates the effect the books have, the calming of the mind. The layer upon layer of Smiley’s intense pondering followed by the sharpness of his move once he’s found the position to make it from. There’s so much more. Benedict Cummerbatch and Tom Hardy, the two young spies, one loyal but dirty, the other straight but sneaky. Appearing positively explosive for simply walking quickly. The private but acknowledged homosexuality, the sourness of lonely drinking and throughout it all Oldman, his face a mask. It leaves you wanting more and there are subsequent books. Would a second be too much of a national security risk?
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