At last Thursday night's screening of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West - in glorious 35mm at the IU Cinema - retired Executive Director of Film Preservation (at Paramount) Barry Allen described the structure of the film as "like a labyrinth...a series of concentric circles revolving around Claudia Cardinale's character at the center." That's an intriguing way to put it, and it also could apply to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tomas Alfredson's raved-about new adaptation of John le Carre's classic espionage novel. The films are similar in complexity and employ the power of suggestion rather than overstatement. Leone's narrative, however, shoots outward from Cardinale Central to convey the expansion of modern America across the Old West; Alfredson follows le Carre's plot inward through a deadly thicket of Cold War treachery to the identity of the traitor responsible.
Commanding the investigation from along the periphery is George Smiley (Gary Oldman), whom we learn early on was forced into early retirement along with his boss, Control (John Hurt), following a botched rendezvous in Budapest leaving their operative Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) wounded. The Budapest debacle is one of at least three key flashback sequences woven into the narrative, the tale of Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) and a drunken Christmas party at "the Circus (MI6) being the other two. Ricki, another low-level "scalp-hunter" on the run from both the Brits and Russians, wants to exchange information about the KGB mole in order to help a Soviet spy (Svetlanda Khodchenkova), with whom he's become romantically entangled, defect. Meanwhile, at the Christmas party (reportedly not in le Carre's novel), we gradually become privy to the consequences of an affair on the pair of cuckolded parties.
All of this is even more complicated than it sounds, to where only an arrogant (read: intellectually insecure) viewer would claim that it's a cinch to follow. The original 1979 BBC Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring the gratingly precise diction of Alec Guinness, packed presumably as much of the book's plot that would fit its 5-plus-hours running time; the granular level of detail left many le Carre fans enthralled, but for me if it moved any slower it would have been going backwards. Alfredson's adaptation poses the opposite problem: building a complicated international thriller around glances, suggestions, and inside-baseball lingo. At times the enterprise comes across as Cliffs Notes le Carre, yet on the whole the movie held me. It's a relief to see an adaptation of a novel (the screenplay is by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan) that respects the source material without genuflecting toward it, and trusts the actors (more than that: depends on them) to get the point across. While Oldman leads a stalwart British ensemble, including Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, and Benedict Cumberbatch - half of whom appear almost visibly relieved to have finally graduated from Hogwarts - Alfredson, his DP (Hoyte van Hoytema), production designer (Maria Djurkovic) and art director (Tom Brown) envelope their cast in an atmosphere that not only reminds you of an early 1970s film but looks like it could have been made during the era it depicts. It's a movie that spells out nothing, couching its emotions and its violence until they burst in tandem, like a teardrop falling from a bullet.
Last week I mentioned that I rarely review older, classic films, finding little to say about them that hasn't already been said. But I do want to mention briefly that Once Upon a Time in the West, a movie I'd seen before (several times, on DVD), is simply stunning on the type of big screen for which it was clearly made. I'd expected Ennio Morricone's multilayered score to register strongly in a theater hot-wired for sound, but I hadn't counted on the enhancement of the performances (particularly Jason Robards, whom I'd previously considered the weak link, but whose subtleties come into sharper focus; and Gabriele Ferzetti's invalid railroad baron, whose longing to see the Pacific grows unexpectedly poignant) as well as the increased clarity of the labyrinthine narrative, unusually dense for a Western, each turn of the plot clicking satisfyingly into place. Despite lousy winter weather and a concurring IU home basketball game, the Cinema was almost completely full, and hardly a sound was heard during the three-hour running time. Afterwards we floated out of the theater, oblivious to the cold, a colleague telling me the next day that going to the movies "doesn't get any better than this."