Films of books you love rarely deliver on your expectations and, for me at least, the recasting of iconic roles seldom creates a feeling of happiness.
Generally I leave the cinema after such films with a long list of ‘well that was wrong’ to spit out to anyone silly enough ask what I thought.
So when news first broke that John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spywas to be made into a new film, my heart sank.
But it’s also a complex, absorbing book with a plot that goes back and forwards in time and place and with large chunks relayed by the central protagonist by secondary characters. How could a film ever do the book justice?
By the time the wonderfully hypnotic teaser trailer came along I was starting feel my heckles dropping and dared to hope the film would be ‘good’ if not ‘great’.
Then as I saw more images and longer trailers I found myself actually getting excited.
Having now seen the film, I can tell you I was delighted, surprised and wowed at what is not only a fantastic film, but also probably the single best adaptation of a book for the big screen.
If you’ve never read the novel I won’t reveal too much of the plot, some basic details can be read here, if you have I can tell you that almost everything from the book makes it into the screenplay.
Ok, some scenes have been moved around, the film starts in a different place, a couple of minor characters don’t appear, Control gets a flat I don’t recall from the book and Peter Guillam undergoes a sexuality swap for some unfathomable reason.
But in the final assessment, this film REALLY IS Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Smiley still puts wedges in his front door, the Major’s table still gets brought to his room at the Islay Hotel, Connie is still endearingly eccentric and talks of her ‘dear boys’ and Karla still has…well if you’ve read the book you know already what he has.
Retaining the 1970’s setting helps keep the plot plausible and reliant on the ingenuity of the characters. As in the source novel, there’s no James Bond/Mission Impossible/Jason Bourne hi-techery to get in the way of proceedings.
Director Tomas Alfredson keeps things tightly paced and handles the time transitions with real skill, ensuring the viewer always knows when events are unfolding. A monologue in which Smiley (Gary Oldman) recounts a meeting with KGB spy Karla is nothing short of breathtaking.
Which brings us on to the issue of Oldman’s performance in a role Sir Alec Guinness made his own in a BBC TV adaptation.
Recasting iconic roles can go horribly wrong and in the process undermine every other aspect of a film or TV series.
Not here. Within barely a minute of screen time Oldman makes the cinema Smiley his own. True to the novel, this is a quiet, placid looking character with an unguessable inner steel and ingenuity.
The film truly takes place in Smiley’s world. It feels as if everything – costumes, sets, colour – was decided around Oldman, like a web drawn outwards with him at the centre.
I think the biggest compliment I can give Oldman is that I can’t imagine a single living actor who could play Smiley half as well as he does.
His superb performance is complimented by a cast which includes Kathy Burke, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Ciarán Hinds, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Konstantin Khabensky, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Roger Lloyd Pack and Mark Strong.
Is it too praiseworthy to suggest not one of them delivers a single duff performance? That’s certainly my recollection.
I could write a thousand more words on why this is a great film but to truly understand you’ll have to experience it yourself.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has ‘multi award winner’ written all over it and it’ll deserve every gong it wins. As for those it doesn’t, they’ll simply have been given to the wrong movie because this film deserves to win them all.
There are two more books which continue the story of Smiley versus Karla, I’m hoping the producers are already working on bringing them to the big screen.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is released on September 16th.