Now that Harry Potter has cast his final spell, what's to become of the massed ranks of Equity? A new and determinedly shabby adaptation of John le Carré's spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy may provide the answer: there's no pressing reason for it to exist, save to provide temporary shelter for a roster of jobbing thesps. (Times are hard in the British film industry, even after The King's Speech.) Audiences are permitted a two-hour pass to this gentleman's club, providing they turn a blind eye to its dusty irrelevance, its essential, built-in lifelessness: never mind the intrigue, the film's producers Working Title beseech us, look at that poster, and feel the quality. Misdirection is its tactic.
The source was given a (to some eyes) definitive filming for British TV in the mid-1970s, back when the Cold War was an ongoing concern. The new version has been conceived as another period drama - only greyer, and without Judi Dench. (You'll find her in Jane Eyre, in the screen next door.) Its most radical and effective choice - apparently deliberate - is to give us the backstory in the opening minutes as telling, vivid fragments: perspiring waiters, failing eyesight, musty, fusty rooms. It's clear that this cast - and Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, previously responsible for another sickly 70s period piece, 2009's Let the Right One In - have been recruited to breathe whatever life they can into an unhealthy, if not outright dying milieu.
This prelude begins with one MI6 agent (Mark Strong) being shot in an incident summarised by a lovely, mellifluous phrase ("that bloody mess in Budapest"), and it ends with the death in hospital of the unit's leader Control (John Hurt), haunted by the suspicion there is a mole at the highest level of British intelligence. Here is where the RADA hordes come in, lined up like suspects in a Marple murder-mystery: who killed Control, as it were, and in doing so brought about the passing of the last vestiges of empire? Well, take your pick. Is it the squat Scotsman (Toby Jones)? The pipe-smoking Hungarian (David Dencik)? How about the withering Oscar-winner (Colin Firth, probably the pick of the bunch, getting a lot of meaning from a flick of his spectacles or a ring of a bicycle's bell)? Our super-sleuth is George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a watchful, just-retired operative - it's him we see at the optician's in that opening sequence - with a detective's messy personal life (his wife is cheating on him with one or another of his colleagues) who winds up quietly, dutifully raking over old history, in the absence of much of a future to look ahead to.
Alfredson, an odd choice despite his past form with adaptations, possibly empathised with this outsider position: he, too, is peering in at a particular form of Englishness, setting up his camera outside the window of a Wimpy restaurant or an adulteress's chamber and observing the trysts going on inside, a spy in the house of love. This director has a certain facility with chilly, deadening, morgue-like atmosphere - very different to the nuanced melancholy of the Wallander adaptations or The Killing, it needs to be said - but brings from his first feature an approach to narrative that is frustrating and obfuscating, when it's not outright anaemic. As with most fanboys, he makes an enthusiastic voyeur, but he breathes too heavily: the pane steams up.
The film gets increasingly cluttered, and not just with grey hair dye and BAFTA-friendly talent. The screenplay, by Bridget O'Connor and the absurdly over-employed Peter Straughan (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, The Men Who Stare at Goats), presents us with stories within stories, piles fabrication atop fabrication, then tosses a baffling in-joke or two ("Arabs - you can rent them, but you can't buy them!") on top of that. What might have worked on the page, written down like the case studies these operatives file, or in serial form, at greater length, comes to play on screen like an Arabian Nights stripped of its exotic pleasures, the latter replaced by the stuffiness that comes as standard with the more superfluous period movies.
Whether or not this stuffiness is intentional - both the cinematography and the production design would suggest that it is - it chokes: about an hour into this ill-considered murk, I found myself longing for the clean, thrilling lines of a Bourne movie, and wondering whether we couldn't just Google the damn mole, already. Alfredson allows himself a small handful of flourishes: an owl emerging from a classroom fireplace, a gag with a beekeeper (Roger Lloyd Pack) who brings his work along with him. Yet these digitised creatures only serve to point up how wilting and analogue the humans swatting them are: almost every scene here is like walking into a hospice for befuddled thesps set to bore you with some anecdotal non-sequitur before they let slip a flash of salient info. (And Alfredson finally has no way of connecting this info up, save to slap a Julio Iglesias cover of "La Mer" over the concluding images: more misdirection, this time silly, bordering on the kitsch.)
At his best here, Oldman reminds you just how the angry young man of the early 1980s has become a more tempered and circumspect screen presence - an old lion - but he's hamstrung by the demands of playing a character a good ten years older than the actor himself is; you catch him straining. Oldman's Smiley is more often comic than he is pathetic or pitiable, and I don't believe this was the idea: between the actor's lowered voice and his relentless pursing of the lips and mouth, he looks like Graham Fellows' immortal creation John Shuttleworth (another example of a fiftysomething performer playing sixtysomething) and sounds like one of the wizened professors from Newman and Baddiel's History Today sketches. (When the mole is finally uprooted, I half-expected Oldman-Smiley to declare "It's you, it is".) In a cast this well-stocked - look at that poster! - it shouldn't matter, but it's Oldman who sets the tone and pace of this Tinker Tailor. The film shuffles when it should move: this isn't cinema, but paperwork.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is in cinemas nationwide.