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Saturday Matinee: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Happy Birthday, Mark Strong!

Before Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy I don't think I understood who Mark Strong actually was. That's even with my husband getting to know Strong on the set of 2006' Tristan and Isolde. The actor stole my heart in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and I've been a fan ever sinceIn fact, I'm probably the only person in the world who was disappointed when Low Winter Sun was canceled and in my take on Before I Go to Sleep I moaned "When will someone cast Mark Strong as a romantic lead?" I'm still asking!

The tear that did me in

Today, in honor of Strong's birthdayAugust 5, 1963we'll go back to TTSS, in which he plays Jim Prideaux, the British agent in hiding as a teacher at a boy's school after a botched operation. That botched operation—due to a mole?—gets both Control and George Smiley fired. In the film, they're back and on a mole hunt. It's thrilling in a quiet, intense, intimate way—as LeCarre's spy world characters usually are. 

The movie's logline: 
In the bleak days of the Cold War, espionage veteran George Smiley is forced from semi-retirement to uncover a Soviet agent within MI6.

The film won the BAFTA for Best British Film as did the script by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan. The screenplay was also nominated for an Oscar in the Screenplay Adaptation category as was the score by Alberto Iglesias. While it's the work of an amazing ensemble, with Mark Strong giving one of my favorite performances, it's also Gary Oldman's movie and he was also nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of George Smiley.

Personally, I give it high marks for period authenticity. Set in the 1970's, the costumes by Oscar-winning designer Jacqueline Durran—she got the win for Anna Karenina but was also nominated for Pride & Prejudice, Atonement—were extraordinary as was the production design by Maria Djurkovic (Imitation Game, The Hours). 

You can stream Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy on Netflix, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, GooglePlay & Amazon. You can also get the film via Netflix' in the mail service. 

And now I'm going back in time to my original post, dated November 20, 2011. Hard to believe I've been blogging about movies based on books for almost seven years!

Late yesterday afternoon, my husband and I took a beautiful drive from our Los Angeles suburb up the coast to Santa Barbara. He had an invite from Focus Features for an industry screening to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Having recently read the book, I couldn't wait to see it and I'd asked him to watch for the screening announcement in the mail. 

At this time of year, our mail is full of envelopes from the studios who screen their award season contenders at multiple locations and times through the end of the year. Sometimes they are held in small private screening rooms at a studio, other times they're at public theatres. Mark's DGA card entitles him to entry with a guest. By the time he actually plowed through the stack of envelopes and called the RSVP line, all the Los Angeles screenings had been booked up. Hence the lovely drive up the Pacific Coast Highway at sunset, the sea glimmering to the west, Ventura, Carpenteria, Summerland, Montecito and Santa Barbara to the east, green and lush, the small mountain range hovering in the background. I always love this drive; had the film turned out to be a bomb, the hour each way in the car would have been enough. It wasn't a bomb, but it may be box office wise.

The screening was held in a small theatre, the Plaza de Oro; The Descendants and The Way were Now Playing. Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In was Coming Soon. There were less than twenty of us in the audience; Santa Barbara being a satellite location, they hadn't expected a throng. Mark and I were the youngest people in the theatre, it was clear the rest of the group were insiders with at least a nodding acquaintance with each other, driving over from tiled roof Spanish style homes in the tony town of Montecito, weekend getaway of the quietly rich and sometimes famous. 

The film started, sans the usual previews, typical for a screening. While the studio screening rooms don't have a snack bar, this theatre did but we passed on the popcorn and soda. The other notable thing that happens in a screening is most of the audience actually stays to watch the credits, something that never happens on a Saturday night at your local movie house. It's not just a sign of respect; you search the names looking for old friends and colleagues or because you were so wowed by the makeup you have to know who keyed it, where was it shot, who played that small but spectacular part?

And so it began. And right off the bat, it was different from LeCarre's gentle start with Jim Prideaux arriving at the school in its bucolic setting. Instead, we are taken to the Circus right away. If I thought for a moment that the film might be leaving LeCarre's quiet suspense behind in favor of a more modern taste for fast action I was wrong. The film moves slowly but steadily along, with frequent flashbacks from this spy or that to explain what they knew, when they knew it, and who they told, thereby explaining the intricacies of the plot.

But do they? Having read the book, I had a pretty good handle on who the fairly large assortment of spies and counterspies were and what they were doing. And yes, in this somewhat tidied up version, a few of those names were lopped off; I wonder how easily the storyline is followed by someone who hasn't (heaven forbid) read the book first?

All the key players are that special brand of British actor—every movement solid and believable, no false notes. John Hurt as Control was every bit as wild and paranoid as his literary counterpart. I wonder if he will be considered for a Best Supporting nod.

I do think it wouldn't have hurt Gary Oldman to have picked up a pound or two to pad his girth so he could more readily be LeCarrés fat barefoot spy, and I admit to examining the lines on his face from one scene to another to determine their source, makeup or life. Makeup I think. Having said that, I thought he was quite wonderful in his patient, calm, quiet reserve on the exterior, George Smiley. He isn't really called upon to do much more than that though, with a couple of exceptions, one being where he sees his wife in the arms of another man. (Won't say whose arms for those who haven't read it) so I don't think it has the histrionics needed for award season.  The director has all but hidden the elusive Ann from our eyes, perhaps so we can create the perfect fantasy woman that Smiley holds her to be? There is a lovely moment when we view George from the back, as he sees Ann, his legs barely buckle at the sight. It's a very subtle and perfect touch.

Tom Hardy is sensual and gives us the touch of sex we all secretly crave but he's more than his full, almost pornographic lips. His recounting to Smiley of the Irina adventure is one of the most endearing and emotional scenes in the film.

Mark Strong isn't at all what I pictured when I read about Jim Prideaux and they've changed a bit about his role in the plot (in the book it's a little more action-oriented!) and I would have loved some more sweet moments with Bill Roach and the other boys but he won me over; his eyes tell a thousand tales. 

I really feel the need to IMDB him and see everything else he's been in. My husband worked with him on Tristan and Isolde starring James Franco and says Strong is just a terrific guy, classically trained, brilliant and intensely likable.

Colin Firth, the film's resident movie star, as Bill Haydon was quite as charming as LeCarré intended but isn't he always? That mix of swagger and vulnerability, the offhand smile; he's quite deadly.

Benedict Cumberbatch will no doubt fetch a ton more 'Cumberbitches' after this one, I think. He knows how to wear those 1960's clothes and he's a fantastic ally for good ol' George.

The director, Tomas Alfredson, is a Swede who has done mostly nordic television work so I can't quite fathom how he landed such a plum job. He did helm the vampire flick "Let the Right One In" which has a huge cult following. Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan wrote the screenplay together as they did Sixty Six,  a film I've never heard of. BUT Straughan also wrote The Debt and Men Who Stare at Goats so the writing assignment does make sense.

Grey and gloomy London, Budapest, and Istanbul, the Circus with its soundproof modules, tatty old English homes and Control's crazed hoarder's flat all read beautifully and authentically thanks to Maria Djurkovic's production design, and Hoyte Van Hoytema's cinematography. The costume design by veteran Jacqueline Durran was perfect in its imperfection, just what you would expect from someone who did the wardrobe for Atonement, Pride and Prejudice and Vera Drake. Her latest film is Anna Karenina (what? again?) with Keira Knightly and Jude Law; period pictures are clearly her element.

In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed the film while finding some of the English accents a bit muddled even for the daughter of a couple of Brits. I found its slow pace, revealing the ins and outs methodically, compelling. I'm just not sure if the film will find its audience; mature, appreciative viewers and readers who don't mind doing a bit of work following along to get to the end. No visual tricks, barely a gunshot. An ending that's a bit more telling than the book's and ultimately a bit more satisfying for those who like things tidy. I just found out from IMDB John LeCarre is uncredited as a party guest. See if you can spot him.