Thursday, January 12, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Movie Review

If you find yourself asking “What happened?” at the end of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, don’t assume you’re alone. This is not because it’s confounding to the point of being indecipherable, but rather for its insistence on avoiding the clichés of spy thrillers that we’ve grown so accustomed to.

To summarize the plot could take all day. Based on the John le Carré novel, the story is set at the upper echelons of British Intelligence in the thick of the Cold War, when Britain and Russia each had spies working to subvert the other and each likely had moles working in the other’s foreign office. Le Carré knows something about British Intelligence, having worked there for many years before retiring and devoting himself full time to writing spy thrillers. His work is the antithesis to Ian Fleming’s James Bond series, which rely heavily on action and thrills, where Bond’s moral clarity is rarely, if ever, questioned. The characters that le Carré creates live in a world of moral ambiguity. Their conflicts are within their own offices and directed internally much more than toward any foreign power. That this story involves the presence of a well-placed mole at the top of British Intelligence is just par for the course.


The sense I got watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (the novel remains unread by me) is that the novel’s plotting is deliberate, intricately well-constructed, and designed to induce more brain than heart exercise from the pounding you might experience from other spy thrillers. Directed by Tomas Alfredson and written by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, it is an exercise in precision – of character development, plotting, scripting, framing, and editing. The more time that passes after having seen it (and as I write this it’s already been more than two weeks), the more impressed I am with its ability to insinuate itself into my thoughts. This is a movie that not only requires, but demands, multiple viewings. Deep concentration during the first viewing may be enough to give you the gist, but to appreciate how well-constructed it is, my instinct tells me you need to return to it.

This is not a spy thriller for anyone expecting a kind of Bourne Identity or even Manchurian Candidate suspense. The whole of the movie is pitched more or less at the same level. There are few action beats, and those that are interspersed are low-key enough to recede into the background. The beautiful, fluid and sometimes haunting score by Alberto Iglesias doesn’t swell to telegraph to the audience when something dramatic or important is happening. There are no thumping and thudding notes to pump up the adrenaline levels during tense scenes (probably because the whole movie rides on high tension). It functions very much like I imagine the real business of espionage works – with a lot of time spent trolling through paperwork and interviewing people and very little running, jumping and shooting. Because of le Carré’s background, we can guess that he writes his novels from the perspective of someone who knows the life. He builds the tension around character and mystery rather than thrills.

Alfredson, who previously directed the wonderful Let the Right One In (the original Swedish version), gives this film a similarly stark look. That film was visually marked by the white winter snow against dark nighttime settings with uncomfortably long lingering shots. He brings similar techniques to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but instead of the white snow to level out the palette, the film is bathed in beiges, browns and ambers giving the London of the film a downtrodden feel, a city that still seethes from the effects of WWII. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema keeps the camera distanced from most of the action, using close-ups sparingly giving the sense that we are observing the action from afar.

The film is studded with fantastic actors who have the ability to play their parts with severity, maintaining stone-cold expressions that depict the long slog of their jobs. There’s John Hurt as Control, the head of Intelligence forced into retirement after a botched operation involving an agent (Mark Strong) who is gunned down in Budapest at the beginning of the film. Gary Oldman is George Smiley, Control’s right-hand man also forced out, but then brought back for a surreptitious investigation to discover the identity of the mole. Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) takes over operations after that. His close-knit group of confidantes – all of them suspects – are Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), and Bill Haydon (Colin Firth). Benedict Cumberbatch plays Peter Guillam, a lower-level officer who assists Smiley. Tom Hardy is the final major player as Ricki Tarr, the field agent who originally brought the possibility of a mole to “The Circus,” the nickname for the intelligence headquarters used in the story. The unfortunate drawback to having so many first-rate actors is that many of them simply aren’t given sufficient screen time to enjoy their presence. But then that’s always going to be one of the sacrifices made in adapting a complex novel for the screen.

Oldman’s performance, however, stands out as a thing of beauty. It’s a performance so inward that not only does Oldman disappear into Smiley, but Smiley almost disappears from scenes. Subdued and understated are almost too strong for what he does. Smiley is one of the most interesting spy characters I’ve seen. He exudes melancholy from a lifetime dealing with sordid material and losing his wife in the process. Most everything is in the eyes, and so little in what he says and does.


The plot is so intricately woven and structured it takes deep concentration to puzzle it all out. It operates in two different timelines as Smiley interviews various former employees of The Circus and learns new facts from each encounter. I mentioned earlier that the film isn’t crafted as most conventional spy thrillers are. The result is a film that leaves you feeling uneasy primarily because we’ve been conditioned to expect a particular set of formulaic plot developments and results from thrillers. When the big reveal occurs and we learn who the mole is, it’s downplayed so much so that I wasn’t sure I was actually being told the answer to the mystery. Then I questioned whether or not some additional plot twist was on the way. The movie got me. It’s a straightforward mystery that doesn’t rely on surprise endings, shoot-outs, chases or talking killers. Ultimately the film ends with a mild bang, but the effect in keeping with the tone of the whole film is that it goes out with a whimper – one that you’re likely to puzzle over for some time.

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