(Tomas Alfredson, 2011)
Beyond the perfection of the costumes - all those tweedy suits, starched shirts and heavy fabric coats - and the beautiful drabness of the production design in general, what effortlessly establishes the atmosphere of London in 1973 in Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of John LeCarre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the grain. Graininess in the image provides immediate texture and suggests a period setting, while also hinting at the fog these characters operate in, straining to see one another and identify motivations across gloomy, smoke-filled rooms.
This spy game story is quite stunningly directed by Alfredson; thick with mood and a vivid sense of its various places - from chilly, paranoid Cold War Budapest to a seedy Istanbul - and full of memorable images and compositions, this is the work of a director who has a muscular sense of the power of cinema.
Tracing the effort of ousted spymaster George Smiley to find the mole at the top of British Intelligence, the plot is revealed mainly through a long series of hesitant, loaded conversations. Characters speak little but say much, requiring strong work from a dazzling cast of British actors, amongst whom Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong register most forcibly. Gary Oldman delivers his best work in years, reining in that explosive energy he usually surfs through empty roles upon. Here instead he seems bowed and tired, his quiet routine portrayed in an early montage by Alfredson which tells us all we need to know about this man without a word of dialogue. Indeed, Smiley does not speak forthe first fofteen minutes of the film, and yet we watch him and assess. His power as an actor is translated into the intelligence we can see behind his glasses and the pain one particular betrayal explodes inside him, communicated only in a sort of strained expression and a barely perceptible sagging of the shoulders. He has two scenes which are more obviously spectacular: a long monologue about his single encounter with Karla, the Russian Spymaster who is Smiley's nemesis, and his final encounter with the unmasked mole, wherein he raises his voice - almost shockingly - for the first time.
The set-pieces are few but effortlessly gripping, and the oh-so-English atmosphere of repressed emotion, of strong feelings never exposed, means that the seismic vibrations under the surface of these characters becomes peculiarly moving as the story progresses. This is a tale of ruined people and doomed romantic notions as much as it is of political machination and secret plotting, and it delivers a strong, almost unexpected emotional charge.
That is mainly down to that exceptional cast and Alfredson's direction, greatly assisted by Hoyte van Hoytema's fabulous photography, which is so strong on texture and detail. I came away with certain small images in my head, the sort of detail that makes a world live onscreen: the scratch of a knife buttering toast, the misty shock of Smiley's morning swim in Hampstead, glasses and hair perfectly in place, the drip of a bead of sweat from a waiters brow onto a table-cloth, the glassy light of the US intelligence bulding in stark contrast to the Circuses colourless dullness, and finally; all these alpha male faces in close-up, evaluating, hiding, plotting.
This is the spy thriller as art house drama, but it succeeds in both regards. Stylish, gripping, quietly devastating, it's a stunning piece of cinema.