Tinker, tailor, soldier, Oscar-winner

Film
TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY
Cert: 12A

HAS there ever been a greater masterstroke of casting than having Gary Oldman play John Le Carre’s famous, and famously understated, spy George Smiley? There were surprises when the announcement was made – surely, people asked, Oldman is a character actor, a quality player of supporting roles and hammy villains, but hardly a leading man? But of course, that’s the point with Smiley – he’s a shadow, a watcher, a quiet, calculating observer of others. He’s neither an action man nor a lothario, but the quintessential spy – the man in the background who happens to hold all the cards.

Oldman is perfect casting and delivers a perfect performance as the retired spook recalled by MI6 to find the double agent. He delivers a master class in restraint, as does the film itself – which isn’t to say that’s it’s ever anything less than thrillingly tense and completely absorbing.

Following a pretty faithful line to Le Carre’s magnificent book, the film draws us into London at the height of the Cold War. This is the dour, grey, menacing London of the grim 1970s, though the film also takes us to Soviet-era Budapest and Istanbul.

The colour comes from the stupendous cast of top-of-their-game Brits: Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds among the suspects; Benedict Cumberbatch the young operative assisting Smiley; John Hurt the disgraced spymaster who first suspected “a snake in the Circus” (referring to MI6’s Cambridge Circus HQ); and Tom Hardy and Mark Strong as other secret service operatives.

Smiley must move between these people and discover the truth, and he’s followed as he does so by the searching camera of director Tomas Alfredson, who scored such an atmospheric and cerebral hit with his Swedish vampire film, Let the Right One In.

This is a nail-biting drama, one that matches its literary inspiration for superiority, intelligence, and sheer satisfaction. And yes, there was the iconic TV adaptation with Alec Guinness way back when; but Oldman is even better than Guinness, and this film’s even better than that famous series. Those involved in it, Gary Oldman in particular, should start clearing some space on their shelves for some awards.

Timothy Barber

THE CHANGE-UP
Cert: 12A

DESPITE its two likeable stars, this high-concept bromance comes up very short. Even the high-concept isn’t original: two diametrically opposite people wake up in each others’ bodies and have to experience and have to experience the world from the other guy’s perspective. So far so Freaky Friday.

Jason Bateman is Dave, the put-upon, responsible daddy and husband; Ryan Reynolds is Mitch, his single, irresponsible, playboy buddy who’s constantly getting his end away but is unfulfilled in life. They go out drinking, the pee in a magic fountain, they wake up the next day having magically swapped bodies. Now Mitch must play at being responsible and junk, while Dave gets to remember what it’s like to have gorgeous brain-dead women fling themselves at you. Cue entirely predictable “comic” situations and even more predicatble lessons eventually being learnt.

There are poo jokes. There are boobs. There is the stale air of desperation and plodding stupidity.

Rubbish.TB

Art Exhibition
DEGAS AND THE BALLET
Royal Academy of Art

YOU may already know if you're likely to want to see a large exhibition of drawings, pastels and paintings of the ballet by baleful Impressionist Edgar Degas. But to dismiss this exhibition as yet another retread of familiar territory, or even as an infallible moneyspinner for the RA, would be to miss a thoughtful and rewarding show that manages to please both the blockbuster fan and the sceptic.

Everything you'd expect to see is here: the exquisite drawings of young girls stretching and posing, worked up into shimmering pastels, off-kilter paintings and crusty bronze figurines.

Contextualising the artist’s work with the photographic innovations of his time, the show makes a case for Degas as a proto-filmmaker, whose willingness to push his art into uncharted territory provides respite from the familiar accusations of misogyny in his work. Degas’ images are really rarely of the ballet; instead, they depict the rehearsal for the main event, with all its aches and pains, and as such reflect the stark realism of contemporary writers such as Flaubert and Zola. Degas’ penetrating eye for the human body under strain forces you to look ever closer, too, at the real pain beneath the ravishing surface.

Ben Street