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Non-Review Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a movie that can be measured against the very best of John la Carré adaptations, and among the very best that the espionage subgenre has to offer. I make that assertion based upon a single viewing, convinced that revisiting the movie will be something of a wonderful experience, an attempt to decode and sift through the film seeking what Control cynically describes as “treasure.” Tomas Alfredson, who established himself with Let the Right One In makes one hell of an English-language debut, providing a film that embodies the culture as much as the language, an elegant and stately affair, never feeling forced or rushed or dumbed down. I think that, with its intriguing structure and manner of suggesting ideas (rather than stating plot points), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy might represent that mythical ideal: the perfect film for grown-ups.

Never gets Oldman...

Such maturity’s not about sex or violence, although both acts are heavily implied (and directly shown). The movie’s maturity is reflected in its confident lack of awkward exposition, and its fascinating non-linear plot, both of which threaten to lock out movie-goers in search of more passive entertainment. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy isn’t a movie that follows a set path of discarded breadcrumbs to a final act denouement. Instead, it’s a movie composed of thoughtful and soulful vignettes that capture the mood and the key thematic points. Despite the basic premise – “there’s a mole at the top of the Circus, and he’s been there a very long time” – this isn’t really a mystery, in that there aren’t too many clues to follow before the traitor is revealed. Instead, the film captures the mood and the long view of the game played between those involved in the intelligence community trying to piece it together.

Alfredson does a fantastic job establishing tone and mood. Some of his shot compositions – Tom Hardy’s young Ricky following his beloved on the docks, for example – are simply beautiful, and he brings a stately air to the film. He uses a lot of traditional devices, reflecting the fact that the lead character is now “outside the family” by frequently observing his characters through windows and other barriers. There’s a constant mood of caution, and the audience is encouraged to scrutinise every frame – the line between foreground and background is frequently muddled, creating a sense of unease.

A Hardy fellow...

The plot follows retired British Intelligence officer George Smiley as he’s tasked with uncovering a double-agent working within the highest levels of his organisation. The enigmatic “Control”, a character who never gets a name as signs his documents “C.” (much like the real life “chief” of MI6), was convinced that it was one of five people, and – as Smiley was “his man” – George Smiley is recruited to flush the mole out. To say any more might spoil the film, so I’ll leave it at that.

Gary Oldman brings Smiley to life as a rather wonderful creation. With a performance reportedly modelled on the actor’s impression of la Carré himself, Smiley seems a relatively timid and quiet sort. He’s a retired officer, abandoned by his wife, unsure of what to do with his time. Of course, as the film so readily demonstrates, nobody is what they seem – from the agent shot dead in a crowded alley to the office’s womaniser. Despite his seemingly polite and restrained exterior, Smiley is a man who is willing to do what it takes to get the job done, and to make the sacrifices necessary.

(S)miles to go before he sleeps...

He inherits a set of chess pieces from Control, and it’s implied that he manages his assets as such. It’s made clear he’s willing to lose them if necessary to accomplish the end goal. Smiley’s counterpart in Russian intelligence, Karl (“the little fellow”), is described by Smiley himself as a “fanatic.” Does that mean that Smiley reflects some of that back, beneath his relatively calm and reasoned exterior? He might project the image of a pragmatic realist, but the retired agent returns to active duty out of some sense of higher duty or obligation – and he’s willing to lie and betray and ruin lives in order to accomplish it.

The film does a wonderful job capturing the paradox at the heart of British Intelligence. It’s all so very serious, with the fate of the world apparently resting on their heads, and yet they’re stuck arguing with bean counters over the rent of a small safe house in London. It’s very telling that the Russian master plan ultimately has little to do with Britain itself, instead treating the small island and its intelligence service as a means to an end in a large game. In effect, all the kings and queens on Control and Smiley’s chess boards are but pawns in the grand scheme of things, possessed of an inflated self-importance. The movie makes it all seem like a zero sum game, with people guilty of horrible crimes traded across international borders like cigarettes. When a spy is caught, they ultimately get shipped home and pensioned off – with one person joking that even if the mole’s caught all he’ll get is “a medal.”

Spy games...

There is, after all, something very telling about all the self-important euphemisms that the characters use, revelling in dressing their dirty work up in fanciful terms. Calling MI6 “the circus” reflects a more theatrical character than the rather functional American equivalent (“the company”). It seems that nobody hides behind language quite as well as British intelligence, using grandiose terms like “leaky ship” and “treasure” to describe relatively mundane (and often unpleasant) facets of the job, giving operations pompous-sounding codenames like “Witchcraft.” It’s telling that “Control” seems to be in anything but.

The film is at its best when it dwells on how completely pointless all this seems, and how the high-pressure no-chance-of-victory atmosphere affects those involved. It seems that those in the profession develop coping mechanisms. Control is revealed, via flashback, to be little more than an alcoholic. Some agents channel their frustrations into sexual addiction. Young Ricky recognises the pointlessness of all this, and how this constant game with no winners has turned Smiley into little more than a hallow shell. “I want a family,” he tells Smiley. “I don’t want to end up like you.” Of course, Smiley realises the pointlessness of it all. He argues that the fanaticism of zealots only conceals “a secret doubt.” One must wonder about the volume of doubt that swamps those who fall just short of fanatacism.

A Firth-class drama...

The movie looks and sounds amazing. The production design is superb, effortless capturing the sixties, both in terms of gritty urban detail, but also in the smooth and polished style one expects. Control’s soundproof meeting room, for example, looks perfect. The soundtrack is equally impressive, calling to mind a sort of late-sixties, early-seventies free-form jazz. Despite the film’s wonderfully relaxed pacing (which provides the necessary space to define the characters in subtle and nuanced ways), Alfredson makes sure that there’s always something interesting on screen.

When it’s not his wonderful shots, it’s the superb ensemble cast. I’ll single Gary Oldman out for special praise, if only because he’s so rarely a leading character. He disappears into Smiley, to the point where one might fail to recognise him. however, the rest of the cast is also on top-form. Working with a tight script, every single character is multi-faceted and realistic – they seem like developed and complex characters, instead of stock archetypes. I can’t single any individuals out, such is the superb quality of the ensemble – but I will note that the relatively younger performers (Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch) hold their ground admirably. I feel that I at least owe it to the actors to mention their names, and Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones and John Hurt are all fantastic. So far, it’s my choice for the ensemble of the year – and it’s tough to point to the very best among them, which speaks to the consistently high standard.

Cumberbatch's right at Holmes...

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a challenging film. I don’t mean that it’s overly artsy or that it’s intentional obtuse, but that it dares to treat its audience like adults. It doesn’t feel an obligation to spell every little detail out (although it does explain everything and hints at more), instead opting to use its central plot as a starting point for an exploration of the key themes and ideas. It’s powerful stuff, and I think we’ll be talking about this film as the year draws to a close. I can’t wait to see it again.

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16 Responses

  1. I’ve been waiting for this film since the release of their masterful trailer. I’m glad it doesn’t disappoint. One of your favorites of the year so far?

  2. Can’t wait to see this. Hopefully, this will be the year Gary Oldman gets the recognition he deserves. Unfortunately we have to wait until December here in the US 😦

    • December? I thought it was October?

      Oldman is fabulous and he deserves a nomination, but I do worry the performance isn’t “showy” enough. Smiley never cracks. He never really emotes. There’s only really one of those stereotypical “give ‘im an Oscar” scenes in the film, as Smiley shares a story of a chance meeting with his Kremlin counterpart, but Oldman isn’t showy or scenery chewing. He’s understated. And I worry it might get overshadowed by other performances. (Even Gosling’s understated performance in Drive features a few moments of the character cracking.)

  3. wow the perfect film for grown ups? nice.

    i want to read the book first. but nobody seems to have a copy. bad planning from the publishing world.

    • That’s a bit of a joke. it’s one of the most talked about movies before the Christmas blockbusters (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Tintin, Sherlock Holmes 2), and one with obvious literary appeal. There’s only so much you can merchandise with an Oscar drama, and you’d think this would be self-evident.

      • I don’t think its released in australuia until end of november so it will probably turn up in book shops the week before. Nowhere near enough time to read a densely plotted le carre spy thriller I’m told.

    • I bought a copy (newly released, I understand) from WHSmith in London on the day of the premiere.

  4. So glad you got a crack at this Darren. And a a great review on top? Perfect.

    I’m hoping Oldman manages to snag a Best Actor nod this year.

    • Thanks Fitz! I’m hoping against hope too, but I can see him getting overshadowed because it’s not a big or a loud or an emotional performance, and Oldman’s strength is skilfully hinting at what goes on beneath the surface, rather than outright showing.

  5. Watched this last night with wife and 20 year old son. Not a film for kids so little chance of it being a blockbuster like Harry Potter. Even 20 year old found it “strange”. Only thing he really got hold of, being pitch perfect, was the music score. He latched on to the upbeat music played against a background of very sombre almost erie sounds – the net curtains and the guy garrotted. Horrible.

    ‘Perfect evil music score’, he said.

    Personally I liked the agent scenes, work at the coal face; the scene in Hungary and in Turkey. That’s where the film gathered pace. It needed to really. We loved it being a film for grown ups. So authentic and I can just remember it, being a young teenager at the time. It started slowly and gathered pace.

  6. For a completely different review of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – click on http://www.davidmurph.wordpress.com

  7. I went to see this yesterday. A lady rattled her paper Pick n’ Mix bag for a long time. She also discussed many of the scenes with quite a loud voice, that made me jump. Having moved seats but with no idea what was happening, a hike was made to next door’s Crazy, Stupid, Love. Then, I returned home and listened to this on repeat: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pCv7k_Hzvg 😐

    A Pick n’ Mix of film experiences, if you will.

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