By Ray Bennett
When John Le Carré created his master spy George Smiley – who is about to be revisited in Optimum Releasing’s Working Title Pictures production of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” – he made him a fat man.
The chunky Rupert Davies, who played Inspector Maigret in the 1960s BBC television series, fit the bill as Smiley in a brief appearance in “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold”.
When Alec Guinness signed on to play the shrewd and subtly ruthless Cold War espionage chief in the hit BBC TV series “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” in 1979, the author feared he had been miscast. The Oscar-winning actor proved a revelation, however, and le Carré observed that, “he acted fat”.
For subsequent novels, le Carré said he wrote Smiley with Guinness in mind and so it makes sense that Gary Oldman, who shares the original star’s gift for changing character, should play the role in the feature film version.
It doesn’t hurt the film’s prospects that Oldman is an established star of Hollywood blockbusters including the Batman films, but after many years living in the film capital, he says he’s glad to be working in his homeland. “Its proper work, and I haven’t done that for a long time. I’ve played some amazing roles and I’ve had a good run, but this is something else. And it’s like coming home. I can’t remember the last time I played an Englishman,” he told the Daily Mail’s Baz Bamigboye.
A big admirer of Guinness, Oldman said he was determined not to let his ghost affect his acting: “There have been many Smileys, so he could be all things. ‘He’s mild-mannered, quite methodical and perspicacious. I know in the book he’s described as a short fat man, but he can be Denholm Elliott, he can be Alec Guinness, he can be James Mason—and he can be Gary Oldman, I think.”
Elliott took the role in a 1991 TV movie, “A Murder Of Quality”, while James Mason played him in “The Deadly Affair” (1966) although he was called Charles Dobbs because a different studio owned the rights to the character’s name. Guinness played him again in the 1982 miniseries “Smiley’s People”, which like the original “Tinker Tailor” is available on DVD.
For the new film, producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Robyn Slovo have cast some other British actors with box-office smashes to their name such as Oscar-winner Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”, “Mamma Mia!”), Tom Hardy (“Inception”), as brash young agent, and Mark Strong (“Sherlock Holmes”) as an agent who has survived an assassination attempt.
Given the richness of the characters in le Carré’s complex tale of lies, double-dealing and betrayal, it is no surprise that a roster of top UK talent has also flocked to the picture. They include Benedict Cumberbatch (TV’s “Sherlock Holmes”), Ciaran Hinds (“Above Suspicion”), Toby Jones (“Infamous”), Simon McBurney (“Rev”) and John Hurt as Control.
The novel, which drew on real Cold War events in the 1960s and ’70s, was the first in the author’s trilogy about the impact on British Intelligence of Soviet spy chief Karla, who was played in the TV version by Patrick Stewart and in the film by Alexander Mercury (“Doctors”). The other titles were “The Honourable Schoolboy” and “Smiley’s People”.
Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor, who together wrote “Mrs. Ratcliffe’s Revolution” and “Sixty-Six”, scripted the film for Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, whose thriller “Let The Right One In” won the 2009 British Independent Film Awards prize as best foreign film.
Le Carré is on board as an executive producer and he decreed that the story should be kept in its original era and Colin Firth says the director has made the most of it. “It has the same sort of resonance that the ’40s had when viewed from the ’70s. This really feels like a rainy, low-tech London,” he told Bamigboye.
In the story, retired agent Smiley is assigned with a young intelligence officer named Guillam (Cumberbatch) to seek out a Soviet mole in the secret service known as the Circus, which places him at odds with director Percy Alleline (Jones) and his deputies Bill Haydon (Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik).
Firth was pleased that Alfredson wanted to explore the human element of the saga. He says, “What I love about le Carré is that it’s more about human motivation than whodunit. The reason why somebody betrays his country is personal and passionate. It’s reality based as opposed to James Bond or ‘Mission Impossible’, and the thing is, we are fascinated by the basic nuts and bolts of the tradecraft!”
The film has its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival on Sept. 5. It debuts in the UK on Sept. 16 from Optimium Releasing, which changes its name to Studiocanal in September. Focus Features will release it in the US on Nov. 19.