In 1973, Control (John Hurt), the head of the highest echelon in the British Secret Service, known as The Circus, was forced to resign and took one of his most trusted men with him. He was George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a quiet man in the organisation who nevertheless was wary when he found out what Control suspected: that there was a mole in their midst. As he peacefully lived out his retirement with his wife, he half expected to be called up again, and once the story of a British agent (Mark Strong) who was shot in Hungary reached him, he knew he would be pressed into service...
John le Carré's most famous novel drew on his experiences amongst the spies in Britain's security services, as did much of his work, but when it came to bringing it to the screen most of his fans were of the opinion that the 1979 television series was not only an excellent adaptation, but would never be bettered. This made the decision to remake it as a film for cinema all the more curious, and many had their reservations at seeing Oldman step into the shoes of the considerable talents of Sir Alec Guinness, for many the definitive Smiley, so much so that he had been brought back to adapt another novel in the series later in the eighties.
It was accurate to observe Oldman's performance owed much to Guinness's interpretation, but this was no mere impersonation, and the star moulded his style to suit the requirements of the remake, which understandably had only a couple of hours to tell the story whereas the original had seven, and was able to delve further into the characters' inner lives and outer facades. Yet Oldman did something that would be striking if it had not been the very opposite of that: his Smiley was such a grey man that he almost disappeared into the background of nearly every scene in which he was in, only emerging when he felt he had a point to make or had satisfied the requirements of the encounters with the shadowy figures in his investigation.
Playing Smiley as a well-nigh invisible man was no mean feat considering he was driving the plot, and Oldman rose to that challenge with some of the finest acting of his career, not to be sniffed at when he could often lapse into showiness and going over the top. Here he had the confidence to be as quiet, almost eerie, as the film around him, and his supporting cast of seasoned British thesps were able to keep up with him in what was naturally more of an ensemble piece when there were so many people to pack into the espionage. Some complained if anything this was too low key, but it captured the drabness of not only Europe in the seventies, but also the desperation of these lives.
That there was never a sense of the world outside these men's, and occasionally women's, existence was purely by design; this sphere of experience was so wrapped up in itself that the impression was the public never knew what was at stake, and the agents never connected with the nation's populace they were supposedly striving to defend. Such was the lot of a spy, or these spies at any rate, consumed by the danger and suffocation of their work, unable to open up to anyone else lest they give too much away, which some are prone to do. Not Smiley, though, he keeps it all buttoned down, the antithesis of his inappropriate surname, even going as far as telling lies of questionable kindness if it meant he got the information he sought. Of that support, Tom Hardy as a field agent who makes the mistake of falling in love provided an unexpected spark of emotion, but really the grinding atmosphere of mistrust was apt to wear you down - imagine how it would be to live it out, and le Carré, one of the producers here, knew of what he spoke. Music by Alberto Iglesias.
[Studio Canal's Blu-ray has umpteen extras, including a commentary with the director and Oldman, featurettes, interviews with cast and crew, and more.]