Since I’m still under embargo on a review after seeing Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (out December 9th), based on the serpentine John LeCarre espionage thriller, I’m going to treat its Oscar chances in the actor category. Why only actors? Well, in part, because this is a movie crammed with actors, and it’s almost as good a collection of British male thespians clamoring for screen time as the Harry Potter saga.
Gary Oldman takes on the deceptively owlish old-school British Secret Service agent, John Smiley, played in the 1979 six-part BBC series by Sir Alec Guinness. There seemed to be no need to top Guinness, the subtlest Smiley. And then along comes Oldman, after years of hamming it up as one villain or another in The Book of Eli, for example, opposite Denzel Washington, or as the menacing voice on countless video games. And he gets to play a hero, to the extent that Smiley is one. Deep behind Smiley’s heavy black glasses, there is a romantic man and a pragmatic spook. He is both player and played in a master chess game within “The Circus,” the upper echelons of British intelligence; and a monkey in the middle where England is tossed between the Soviets and the Americans. (Readers of LeCarre know the author doesn’t think much of the Yanks.)
This is a best actor worthy performance. No doubt. Add Oldman to the list.
Who will come out in the supporting category is unknowable, although I’d throw my weight behind Tom Hardy, as the sexy seventies spy who comes in front the cold, with a big bit of treasure and a secret so large that every body around him keeps dying.
Hardy’s role couldn’t be more different than his barely articulate fighter in Warrior, yet he retains the kind of screen gravity that draws eyes to him in whatever scene he’s in.
Other notable supporting players? There’s the relatively unknown Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Smiley’s right-hand. A rising English star who played Sherlock Holmes in the recent BBC reboot, Cumberbatch breaks down beautifully in a restrained scene where he “tidies up his life” in anticipation of a spy shit-storm. Then there’s Colin Firth — but he just won best. And the wily John Hurt. The nearly campy Jones. And playing a broken and betrayed British agent, Mark Strong makes a dark horse candidate even within his own movie; happily, the strong-jawed actor is no cardboard villain here.
The chief impediment to the movie’s overall chances, at the box office in December and as an Oscar contender, is how damn smart it is. LeCarre’s genius is in twisting a plot that’s so complicated even the players can’t figure it out, much less the readers/viewers. That’s the pleasure of the piece: not knowing, not being able to figure it out, struggling in the dark like the spies themselves. I’ve read the book. I’ve seen the mini-series — available from Acorn Online — just last month. And the movie still challenges. That leads to a question that would make Smiley and LeCarre scoff: can American audiences focus long enough to follow the thread? Can they enjoy the intellectual game even if they can’t solve it in advance like a big wooden children’s puzzle, rather than the challenging double-sided jigsaw that it actually is?