SCENE STUDY: GARY OLDMAN
Tinker, Tailor, Solder, Spy, (“TTSS”) the 2011 movie, based on the famous John le Carré spy novel, will not appeal to everyone.
TTSS moves at a very “deliberate” pace. The action scenes are few and far between. It’s an understatement to describe the plot as complicated. There are also dozens of characters coming and going throughout the storyline, and most are left underdeveloped.
However, anyone interested in the art and craft of acting will need to see the movie to catch the performance of actor Gary Oldman. His portrayal of George Smiley is one for the ages.
Throughout his acting career Gary Oldman has done more than flirt with greatness. Early on he delivered masterful efforts in the lead roles of the films, Sid and Nancy and Prick up your Ears. Even subsequent supporting roles increased his reputation. The scene in True Romance, with Oldman playing a “white pimp,” has become iconic.
Unfortunately, there were other projects where his performance was the best part of the movie -- Immortal Beloved; State of Grace; Romeo is Bleeding; The Fifth Element; and at least a dozen other movies over the last twenty years.
The reality of managing a career in Hollywood also requires working on high-profile, big budgeted movies that don’t usually stretch the talents of a gifted actor, but are necessary to maintain viability in the marketplace. Oldman was paid to add his acting talents and class up such productions as Air Force One; Hannibal; Lost in Space; and both the Harry Potter and Batman franchises.
When it was announced Oldman had signed on to play the character of George Smiley in TTSS, I wasn’t excited about the prospect. I saw the role as a potential minefield.
George Smiley was portrayed in a six-hour 1979 TV miniseries by Alec Guinness in what many believe was the actor’s career-defining part. Guinness’ portrayal of the character has achieved almost legendary status with fans over the years.
A remake of the book and the miniseries would not only be a daunting task for a filmmaker attempting to boil the complicated book down to the length of a theatrical movie, but any actor attempting to take on the role of George Smiley would be competing with a “ghost.”
It’s not that I had doubts about Oldman doing a wonderful job in the role. My concern was whether movie audiences would allow Oldman to carve out his own Smiley space.
As it turns out, I shouldn’t have worried.
Across the board, those who have seen the film (including those who are also fans of the miniseries) rave about Oldman’s take on the Smiley character. Indeed, his performance in TTSS ended up getting the actor his first nomination for an Academy Award (for best actor).
The actor’s entire performance in the film is worth dissecting because it is so nuanced and tone-perfect. However, to best illustrate my point that Gary Oldman is at the top of his profession, I will concentrate my efforts in analyzing a key scene from the movie.
Smiley is a spy who has seen too much, experienced too much, and yet is the only one with enough intelligence and experience to ferret out a mole within the highest ranks of the British Intelligence agency. And as we eventually discover, Smiley has personal reasons for taking on the assignment.
Film critics have pointed out the remarkable choice of having Smiley speak for the first time nearly twenty minutes into TTSS. One wonders if it would have happened at all if anyone else but Oldman had been cast in the role?
Gary Oldman has never been an actor to be overly concerned about his “line count,” instead always more focused on creating a consistent and believable character.
The decision to have George Smiley’s silent presence early on is perfectly consistent with the character’s almost shell shocked response to the events that have overtaken his life. His marriage seems to be over, and his career appears to be in even worse shape. Even in the best of times Smiley is clearly someone who observed much, but revealed only what he wanted to reveal – a perfect combination of characteristics for a spy, but maybe not so good for a husband.
There is a scene, approximately one hour and twelve minutes into the film, (Chapter 13 on the Blu-ray) that contains no raised voices… dramatic conflict… or violence. Everything about the scene is subtle and sublime.
In the past, Oldman has often been acclaimed for his high-octane performances, but it’s not a choice he makes for this scene. He maintains the persona of the character he has carefully crafted throughout the movie. However, the decision means Oldman must compel the audience to move closer, close enough to truly see how much anger and disappointment that Smiley has had to swallow for years.
The setting is an apartment that is being used for the investigation. Smiley is talking to another spy with whom he is working, Peter Guillam (played by the outstanding actor, Benedict Cumberbatch). The topic of the conversation is “Karla,” a Soviet Intelligence officer with a long history of espionage, and who looks to be the man “sponsoring” the mole Smiley is searching for. In the course of this scene Smiley comes to the realization that if he is going to succeed in catching the man responsible for destroying people’s lives and careers, he must first come to terms with his own past.
The first shot has Smiley pouring some liquor from a bottle into a single glass. Since the scene has two characters, showing two glasses would be the obvious choice. The decision to show only a single glass could be significant.
We cut to a Master Shot, where the camera is positioned level with Smiley reclining in a chair, and also low enough to capture Guillam sitting on the floor in the foreground of the shot, his back to the lens.
Worth mentioning is the general color of the scene, which is similar to the rest of the movie – brown. The creative choice to use a brown palette is in line with a “period piece,” but the more important factor is what the color scheme signifies about the characters and the world they spend most of their time inhabiting. There is no glamour or prestige in what these people do for a living. Everything about their world is very drab.
“I met him once… Karla.”
Smiley’s opening words are spoken less like a “briefing” between two spies and more like a therapy session. The Master Shot captures the context perfectly – the composition has Smiley almost lying down on a “therapist couch” as his shrink listens to his thoughts.
“Moscow was in pieces…” and “purge after purge” is what Smiley describes to Guillam about the scene from years ago when he first encountered Karla. Substitute “Smiley” for “Moscow” and it would describe the dreadful state of Smiley’s life. “Purge” could also be a reference to what Smiley must do with his past if he is to discover the key to stopping a mortal enemy who has been haunting him for years.
Smiley continues his tale of years ago by describing how the world had changed overnight (with Stalin’s internal purge of the Soviet Union’s Intelligence organization) as spies from Russia were scrambling to make a deal with their Western counterparts.
“Hundreds of them,” Smiley says. And the way Oldman delivers the line confirms that Smiley has been drinking. In an earlier shot of Guillam, we see he is holding an almost-empty glass of brown liquor, confirmation they are both bonding over alcohol.
The line, “hundreds of them,” suggests how focusing on just one agent in the field is difficult, even impossible. It does not matter whether that spy is your own, could be one of your own, or is an asset for the enemy. Or even the narrator himself. The spy trade is all about causes, not individuals. And when a cause is destroyed, a single spy or “hundreds” are expendable. Spies are always expendable.
The movie’s musical score, non-existent in the scene up to this point, begins to drift in just as Smiley begins to mentally float into the past.
During this section of the scene Oldman never looks like an actor waiting to deliver the next line. He has become Smiley himself (a fictional character), playing out in his head a confrontation (a fictional event) with another spy, Karla (a fictional character), as if it really happened and that there is a reality to draw from.
When one watches this scene, you are of course drawn to Oldman’s eyes as he stares into the past. On repeated viewings, I couldn’t tell whether he was seeing images that have been underneath his eyelids for years… or visions he’s just now forcing himself to watch for the first time.
Smiley’s verbal reference to the past (at the same time the music makes its first appearance) could have served as the audio cue for the filmmakers to visually dissolve to the past to depict the confrontation between Smiley and Karla. It is a choice the mini-series makes and a “flashback” was a choice the filmmakers of TTSS had made in a sequence just minutes before when dealing with a pair of supporting characters.
However, the filmmakers stay with Oldman playing Smiley in present time talking about what happened in the past, not showing it.
One reason is to capitalize on the opportunity to showcase what a talented actor is capable of achieving when he is left with describing the past, rather than the viewer seeing it. But perhaps most importantly, allowing Oldman to play Smiley in the present means he will not be sharing the stage with Karla (and an actor portraying the Soviet spy). Because this scene is not about two men, it’s really about the emotionally crippling impact that one man has sustained at the hands of another man’s actions.
“I was sitting here, he was sitting there,” Smiley says to Guillam, referring to an empty chair in front for him. The gesture is meant to paint a picture for Guillam, but the camera shot of vacant space also signifies how a “ghost” from the past has haunted Smiley for years.
Smiley says that Karla had been tortured, that the Soviet spy’s nails had been torn out by the American crew interrogating him. But Oldman plays Smiley looking at his nails in such a way that it appears as if he is describing how his own nails have been ripped out over the years.
The narrative continues and at the most critical point in the story, Smiley says, “Things weren’t going well with Ann.”
Ann is Smiley’s wife.
Later in the movie we will learn Ann is at the heart of how all these years Karla was able to beat Smiley. His shaky marriage was the only weakness that Smiley had as a spy.
Ironically that vulnerability was revealed by Smiley himself during his encounter with Karla. Smiley suggests to Karla that the Soviet Spy should defect to the west because it would save “his wife.”
Smiley now admits to Guillam, with much embarrassment, that his approach was more revealing about himself than being a serious lure for Karla. Unfortunately, the “Freudian slip” will end up having a devastating effect on Smiley’s career and his marriage. Though Karla was mute throughout the interrogation, the master Soviet spy was not deaf.
At this point the film’s director, Tomas Alfredson, switches to a camera angle that is very seldom utilized in modern films – a straight-on shot of the actor directly addressing the camera. This particular camera angle is usually employed when an actor is looking into a mirror.
Earlier in the scene, there was a two shot of Smiley addressing an empty chair as if Karla sat opposite him. The director clearly had the choice to go back to this two shot, but chose the straight-on shot because it is thematically consistent with the most important point of the scene – that Smiley is facing a demon from the past. The “mirror” camera shot was chosen specifically to illustrate Smiley addressing his worst enemy. Not Karla. Smiley is talking to himself.
“We are not so very different you and I. We both spend our lives looking for the weakness in one another’s systems. Don’t you think it’s time to recognize that there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine?”
Oldman, as Smiley, stares forward, waiting for an answer to his emotional plea… but after a long pause, says, “He never said a word. Not one word.”
It is here that one looks at Oldman/Smiley’s face and sees on display the utter despair of a spy who has come to realize a sad fact. His profession, which he has given a lifetime of service, has repaid his sacrifice with death, destruction… and unhappiness.
Then Oldman shifts his eyes, screen right, a visual cue that his character is no longer recounting the words he spoke to Karla, but is now reflecting on how this single encounter ended up impacting his life.
The actor holds on this fixed stare… until he once again shifts his eyes screen right, in the direction of Guillam. At this point, Smiley’s dialogue takes on the content and tone of a narrator finishing the story and re-engaging with his drinking companion.
The confession/therapy session is over. With this recounting of the past, and its full understanding of the impact on his life, the “purge” of the soul that Karla had managed to possess all these years, is now complete.
There is finally a chance that George Smiley can go after the adversary who’s had mental and spiritual control over his life.
Watch the scene over and over and you will discover other remarkable examples of how Oldman has perfected his craft as an actor. Notice how Oldman does not blink throughout the entire straight-on shot when he is directly addressing the camera, including when the actor shifts his eye line! Film actors (and film editors) know how difficult this is to achieve. An actor blinking his eyes distracts from the performance, but very few actors would be able to accomplish such a feat in such a complicated, lengthy, up-close shot.
Of course the scene under analysis – indeed, Oldman’s entire performance – would not have achieved such heights without the collaboration of Alfredson, and a quality script credited to Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, which was based on the novel written by John le Carré.
No doubt Alfredson was conspiring with Oldman as he prepared his performance so it would be consistent with the overall direction of the film. And Alfredson’s creative instincts are fully on display later in the same scene as Smiley discusses the revelation he has had concerning Karla. The director shoots the dialogue with a camera angle on the opposite side of Smiley, a completely different angle than any other shot used in the scene. Alfredson’s astute choice is clearly meant to suggest the digression to the past has led Smiley to arrive at a “new way of looking” at the problem.
There’s no doubt Alfredson possessed the artistic chops to fully collaborate with Oldman as he mapped out the best way to “frame” his lead actor’s masterful performance. But in the end, no matter that it will almost always be a director working with an actor to craft a great performance, it is the actor alone who is up on the screen.
Gary Oldman has had a bumpy career as one of our finest actors. Never could I have imagined that the part of an emotionally repressed, locked-down spy… who never fires a gun… and is having trouble holding on to the woman he loves… would be the part that best showcases Oldman’s talent and craft.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is where I plant my flag as I declare that there is no better actor than Gary Oldman in movies today.