CinemaDope: Out of Bondage

The other British spy

Thursday, January 12, 2012
Jack English/Focus Features
Gary Oldman in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

For fans of the espionage genre, there will always be a few names that reign supreme. Right or wrong, the first name that comes to mind is usually a last name: Bond. Ian Fleming's British superspy (along with his accompanying lady friends, gadgetry, and one-liners) has become such a mainstay among generations of filmgoers that, this past holiday season, my brother-in-law and I were able to match wits in a long-running Bond trivia contest. (Sample question: What was the name of Bond's wife? Yes, he was married, briefly.)

But it is another British spy—one that some might consider the British spy—that many turn to after Bond's adventures start to feel a bit too much like schoolboy boasts. That man is George Smiley. Dreamed up by author John le Carré, his Smiley is a career spook in Britain's intelligence service MI6 (aka the Circus) who, far from showing up to work in a tuxedo, is most often portrayed looking like a retired professor who got caught in a storm. The defining performance has always been Alec Guinness' portrayal in the early 1980s for a few BBC television series—the actor's quiet cunning and steely core made him the perfect figure for a cloak and dagger world that relied more on chess-like maneuvering and less on acrobatic fisticuffs.

This week, another actor takes on the role when Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy screens at Amherst Cinema. Gary Oldman (late of the Harry Potter series) tightens the trenchcoat, finally at an age where the sometimes strident energy of his younger years has calmed to a steadier simmer fitting for le Carré's man. In a new adaptation from Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, best known for his child-vampire story Let The Right One In, Oldman's Smiley is in hot water after an agent's mission abroad ends in a disastrous embarrassment. In the atmosphere of the early 1970s (when the film is set), Cold War tensions leave no room for international incidents, and Smiley is out of a job.

Or is he? There are suspicions about some of the top leadership in Circus—about foreign moles, double agents and traitors—and Smiley is discreetly called back to investigate the dark doings in the halls of power. Falling into his sights are a group of high-ranking officers, including Colin Firth as Bill Haydon; he also finds help from Peter Guillam, a department head played by rising star Benedict Cumberbatch—an actor better known for playing another famous British detective in the recent BBC Sherlock Holmes update.

The result is a game of cat and mouse whose rewards run deeper and last longer than those of most spy films. (It no doubt helped that when the original series was released, the Queen's art historian had just been publicly exposed as a former Soviet spy.) Getting to the bottom of it all may take some time, but by the time it's all over, you'll wish it wasn't.


Also this week: Cave of Forgotten Dreams returns to the area when Pothole Pictures screens it at Memorial Hall in Shelburne Falls this weekend. Another engrossing documentary from Werner Herzog (Encounters at the End of the World, Grizzly Man), this remarkable film explores the cave etchings that make up some of our earliest human history.

Discovered in southern France almost two decades ago, the etchings and drawings depict the animals of the time alongside hand prints left behind by the artists. Unfortunately, the delicate nature of the work—and the cave in which they're located—means that for most people a visit is an impossibility. All the more reason, then, to take in Herzog's wonderful film, and reflect on the enduring power of art.

Jack Brown can be reached at

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