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Colin Firth Turns Spy, Fassbender Craves Sex in Venice Movies

Colin Firth signs autographs at the Venice Film Festival. He presented ''Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,'' a John Le Carre adaptation in which he plays a British intelligence agent. Photographer: Farah Nayeri/Bloomberg
Colin Firth signs autographs at the Venice Film Festival. He presented ''Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,'' a John Le Carre adaptation in which he plays a British intelligence agent. Photographer: Farah Nayeri/Bloomberg

Sept. 7 (Bloomberg) -- There’s a Soviet mole in the intelligence service, and Gary Oldman needs to find out who.

So begins “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” adapted from the John Le Carre novel, with John Hurt and Colin Firth also in the cast. A contestant for the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, it premiered there earlier this week.

At the festival news conference, Firth -- wearing a black shirt under his gray summer suit -- said he was confident the film would do well.

“I do think there’s an appetite to be stretched,” he said. “I don’t think that people just want slash-and-burn.”

Firth may be right. There are enough spymasters and Cold War hitmen to keep moviegoers gripped, especially as concentration is needed to keep up with the plot.

Set in 1973, the movie shows agents codenamed Tinker, Tailor (played by Firth) and Soldier who are suspected of being double agents by Control (Hurt), the head of the Circus (as the service is known). Oldman’s character, George Smiley, picks up where Hurt left off.

The movie has a great plot, look, and cast. Yet it doesn’t capture the complexities of British society -- not least the class system -- and often veers into caricature. Characters wear tweed a lot, convene in gentleman’s clubs, and at crucial meetings, slather butter over toast triangles.

The likely explanation for this cliched portrayal is that filmmaker Tomas Alfredson is Swedish. Attractive though his film is, it would have been better served by someone with less of an outsider’s view. Rating: **1/2.

McQueen’s Shame

Brandon is an emotional cripple: He’s addicted to sex in just about all combinations, and pathologically averse to human relationships.

The Manhattanite is the antihero in Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” which, despite brash displays of frontal nudity, received an ovation at its red-carpet Venice premiere. In the demanding title role is the talented Michael Fassbender, who played hunger-striking Irish republican Bobby Sands in McQueen’s first movie “Hunger” (2008).

“It’s uncomfortable doing sex scenes,” he admitted to reporters. “You just have to jump into it, really. You just have to go for it, so you don’t have to do too many takes.”

Brandon leads a bleak life in his sleek New York apartment. He wakes up every day to erase voicemails from a bruised ex-girlfriend. The only company he keeps is a topless stripper who talks to him via Webcam, and knows his tastes, which range from escort girls and threesomes to gay sex and self-eroticism.

Singer Sister

One day, Brandon comes home to find his long-lost sister (the excellent Carey Mulligan), a struggling singer who drifts in and out of trouble. She cozies up to him, getting too close for comfort (his and ours). As fallible as he is controlling, she highlights the barrenness of his existence.

McQueen -- also a prizewinning visual artist -- brings his unique signature to the work. Shots are composed like art, even when they’re of a steamy menage a trois. There are impressively long sequence shots, as in “Hunger.” Music (especially Bach) is so well used, it becomes an actor in the film.

“Shame” confirms McQueen as one of the most original talents in world cinema. It’s unlikely he’ll leave Venice empty-handed. Rating: ****.

What the Stars Mean:
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this review: Farah Nayeri in Venice at farahn@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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