“TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY” (2011) – 4 STARS

Bringing “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” to the big screen was a pretty tough challenge. The movie is adapted from John le Carre’s complex 1974 spy novel of the same name. In 1979 it was adapted for television in the form of a seven part mini-series. So trying to condense the story down to two hours while maintaining its tense spy thriller feel was quite an undertaking. But hats off to director Tomas Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan for not only pulling it off but for delivering a deep and enthralling picture.

I was first attracted to “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” thanks to its stellar cast. The film features a veritable who’s who of british actors. Any movie that features the incredible talents of Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Toby Jones, and Ciaran hinds (who is actually Irish) is automatically off to a good start. Some of my favorite actors are in this bunch and here they really shine. Each perfectly relay the antsy Cold War paranoia that this type of movie calls for. Not one performance is disingenuous or fake. In many ways you can call this an acting clinic.

The film takes place in the early 1970’s. George Smiley (Oldman) is called back to British Intelligence, also known as “The Circus”, to root out a high level “mole” who is believed to be leaking highly classified intelligence to the Russians. One year earlier Smiley along with his boss Control (Hurt) had been forced out after a botched assignment caused the capture of an agent (Strong) in Hungary. Since Control has been removed, the Circus is being run by Percy Alleline (Jones). Working alongside Alleline is Bill Haydon (Firth), Roy Bland (Hinds), and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). Smiley puts together a team to help find the mole. An important piece of the puzzle is an agent named Ricki Tarr (Hardy). Tarr is the one who made the allegation of a mole and may have even more information that could bring everything to light. Smiley must sift through the misdirections and false leads to find the identity of the mole and the four Circus higher-ups are prime suspects.

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” rewards patience. It’s a story that unfolds through a slow leak of clues and cleverly timed flashbacks. It’s a complex and layered story that requires a lot of attention and that could be what attracts many people to it (myself included). On the flip side I can see where some may be dissuaded after seeing the story as a muddled, convoluted, and almost laborious exercise. I’m not going to lie and say I completely grasped everything I was seeing. It did take a few rewinds and a little research to really put everything together. In some ways that did take away from the experience but on the other hand everything was presented. While it’s deliberate and sometimes dry, O’Connor and Straughan’s script is tight, structured, and clearly intends to make the audience work right alongside of Smiley.

Another thing you will instantly notice is the careful attention to the look and presentation of the movie. Alfredson’s direction is quite good and the mood and tone is just right. The movie is saturated with blues and greys that creates a cold, sullen atmosphere. The steel-faced agents are in a constant state of seriousness to the point that any smile automatically evokes suspicion from the audience. Oldman’s understated performance is pitch-perfect. Smiley is tired and worn but committed and resolved. His weathered poker-face hides his thoughts and intentions from the other characters and from us. Even Tom Hardy’s strange-looking blonde wig seems perfectly in tune with the picture.

This isn’t a spy movie in the same vein as James Bond or Jason Bourne. I’m certainly no expect of being a secret agent but this feels as real and grounded as any spy movie I have seen. It’s slow-moving and sometimes difficult to navigate but it’s also smart and completely engaging. It’s top-tier cast makes things even better and the movie would be worth seeing just for the wealth of acting talent involved. “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” isn’t a film for everyone. But I found myself completely invested even if it did take a little work to get the full thrust of the story.

“THE VERDICT” – 4 1/2 STARS

I really enjoy courtroom dramas and “The Verdict” is a good one. It’s directed by Sidney Lumet and stars Paul Newman in one of his finest performances. David Mamet adapted the Barry Reed novel of the same name. The film received high praise from critics and Newman, Lumet, and Mamet each received Oscar nominations. It’s unique compared to other courtroom pictures in that the main case isn’t a huge unfolding mystery. In fact the case at the center of the film is pretty cut and dry. It’s the organizing of their defense, the fighting through the legal process, and the presentation of the case that fuels the narrative.

But “The Verdict” is also the tale of redemption. Underneath the courtroom drama is the story of a man who has watched his life crumble and but now sees a chance to get his life in order. Paul Newman plays Frank Galvin, a boozing Boston lawyer who has found himself resorting to ambulance chasing in order to pick up clients. In fact, he’s only had four cases in three years and lost them all. Just like his practice, his personal life is in shambles and he finds his only destructive solace at the bottom of a bottle. Newman nails this character and his Oscar nomination for the role was well deserved. It’s a nuanced performance that shows Frank as more than just a down-on-his-luck alcoholic. Newman expertly conveys the inner conflict within Frank and it’s that internal, personal struggle that drives one of the picture’s most compelling components.

Frank’s luck appears to change when an old friend and former partner Mickey (Jack Warden) hooks him up with a medical malpractice case that should be a slam dunk. But what kind of movie would this be if everything was all sunshine and flowers? Frank decides to take the case to trial and turns down a substantial settlement which baffles everyone including his clients. He then finds himself up against a biased judge and a prominent law firm led by Ed Concannon (played wonderfully by James Mason). It’s a legal David and Goliath story with Frank running into one complication after another. Add to it his personal and emotional fragility and you have the ingredients for a top-notch story.

David Mamet’s screenplay is intelligent and razor-sharp. The dialogue is well written and the pacing is methodical. While Mamet’s story intentionally moves deliberately, it does seem to spin its wheels a little during the middle of the film. And some people may argue that the movie isn’t the most detailed and cohesive courtroom drama. But Mamet doesn’t use the courtroom as his main focus. It’s a vehicle that allows this tired and broken man to try for redemption by doing the right thing. Lumet’s direction is fantastic and his ability to capture emotion and intensity through silence is impressive. He also gives the movie a gritty edge and authenticity that perfectly fits.

While Lumet and Mamet’s work is solid and there is a wonderful supporting cast, everything comes back to Paul Newman. Almost always seen on-screen as the handsome and vibrant performer, here he looks old, worn-down, and defeated. He perfectly captures this character and we never doubt him for a second. There’s no hard-to-believe miracle transformation. Instead we see someone taking one step at a time trying to dig himself out of the hole he made. Newman sells all of this with a down-to-earth genuineness that is easy to buy into. “The Verdict” may not be the most highly polished courtroom movie but it certainly holds its own. It’s an emotionally charged drama with a redemptive subtext that worked for me on so many levels. And how can you not love watching Newman dominate the screen in what is arguably his greatest performance.