L'étoile once again welcomes new contributor Niles Schwartz of The Niles Files. This week, Niles shares his musings on the many faces of Gary Oldman. You can listen to Niles every Thursday night at 11 p.m. on The Nite Show with Mischke on WCCO 830 AM.
Halfway into Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, director Tomas Alfredson gives a large bloc of moviegoers something that they’ve not only been waiting for the last hour of the film, but several years – perhaps decades. At long last, the actor Gary Oldman, here portraying John Le Carre’s iconic spy George Smiley, is given the scaffold’s spotlight, delivering an important monologue, his face held in an exquisite close-up. Smiley has been mostly silent up to this point, the glare of his immense thick eyeglasses denoting a ghostly presence communicating the almost post-human logic of the Cold War in which Le Carre’s story is set (specifically, 1973). Smiley talks to young Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) about his Soviet nemesis “Karla,” whom Smiley tried to lure to the West in 1955.
“We can give you a comfortable life,” quotes the 1973 Smiley of the original 1955 conversation. Notice how the reminiscence is staged, Smiley talking to the empty chair in front of him, like an actor rehearsing on stage. “Have a cigarette. Use my lighter. Think of your wife.” Smiley confesses to Guillam that his strategy to get Karla was to “keep harping on about the damn wife,” offering forth the logic of coming to the West when a return to the East meant almost certain death. “We’re not so different, you and I. We look for the weaknesses in each other.There is as little worth on your side as there is on mine.” But Karla “never said a word. Not one word.” Karla willingly went back to Russia, knowing full well that he might be tortured or killed. “He kept my lighter. It was a gift. ‘To George, from Anne. All my love.’” Smiley acknowledges that the interrogation gave Karla an advantage, because Smiley, through the lighter and his “harping on about the damn wife,” has essentially revealed to Karla how much his wife, Anne Smiley, means to George. Smiley’s emotional attachment exposed, he is vulnerable. Paradoxically, Karla’s steadfast determination to reject the West points to why Smiley says “he can be beaten.” He explains, “He’s a fanatic. And the fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.” Your passion is your weakness to the enemy, found in political ideology and romantic love. You only win by not being yourself.
Smiley looks at Guillam. “Assume they’re watching you, Peter. Now’s the time to tidy up.” Smiley is telling him that whatever elements in your life serve a private human yearning, get rid of them if you want to endure in this world of espionage. It’s as if Smiley already knew everything “secret” about young Peter Guillam, who we then see taking his elder’s advice, “tidying up.” Guillam has a gay lover who must be rejected so that the young spy can maintain an inconspicuous heteronormative appearance. This leads back to the eerie presence of Oldman’s Smiley, who seems a metaphor for the fine film Alfredson has meticulously crafted. At first glance, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of the most dispassionate films imaginable, its arteries hardened and blood slow moving like we could sense in these middle aged effete men, their visages like masks (none more so than Smiley) conveying decay and submission to aging: Oldman, Toby Jones, John Hurt, Ciaran Hinds, David Dencik, even a ladies’ favorite like Colin Firth – they are the anti-Daniel Craig, the anti-Bond or Bourne. Their bodies are appropriated by governments and made vessels of information and communication; the men of the “Circus” (Le Carre’s name for Great Britain’s spy division) are performers, actors, and acrobats, selling the drama.
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