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My Best of 2011: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy & the Upstanding Britishness of it all…

It’s that time of the year. To celebrate 2011, and the countdown to 2012, I’m going to count down my own twelve favourite films of the year, one a day until New Year’s Eve. I’m also going to talk a bit about how or why I chose them, and perhaps what makes this list “my” best of 2011, rather than any list claiming to be objective.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is number two. Check out my original review here.

I can understand why some people were a bit disappointed by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. After all, the trailer did try to sell the film as a bit of a high-tension action movie with a deft touch of British class, sort of like Jason Bourne meets To The Manor Borne. It’s easy to see why some people might have got the wrong impression of a movie that sold itself as an “espionage thriller”, the type of film that typically features moments on incredible suspense, nice outfits, exotic locales and the fate of the entire world in the balance. Obviously, nobody was expecting anything quite as showy as James Bond, but perhaps they anticipated a more sophisticated version of that type of adventure – without the gadgets and the supervillains and outlandish stunts, of course. However, instead of the “sophisticated James Bond”, la Carré writes what might be best classified as the “anti-James Bond.”

There’s nothing fancy about intelligence work, you see. It’s just drab paper-pushing, like any other job. There are no fast cars, no high-speed chases. When you meet a beautiful woman, she’s likely far more trouble than she’s worth. Your arch enemy isn’t your opposite number in Moscow, but an accountant in the civil service. Forget about fancy watch lasers or nonsense like that, you’re lucky if you can afford to rent a house in London to meet your “inside man.” Times are, of course, tight.

And times are tight because everybody knows that you’re playing a zero sum game. If you’re in the intelligence community, you’re pretty unlikely to affect the grand outcome of events. After all, that game was played a lost when the Soviets got their hands on nuclear espionage from the Rosenbergs. If you’re in British Intelligence, it’s even worse. You’re not even playing for a major team in more in what’s ultimately a fairly pointless sport. You’re opponent is just going through the motions or – worse – just using you to get at the bigger guy playing on your side. I think what probably stung the most out of everything in the film about a mole-hunt at MI6 is the fact that it was all just a sideshow to the Russians, an attempt not to undermine British Intelligence, but to weasel their way to the Americans.

There are occasional flashes of violence – dead bodies disembowelled in the bath tub, that sort of thing – as a reminder that people can still lose in this game. They just can’t win. The individual pawns are liable to be sacrificed, to be written off and lost – people discarded like chess pieces in a game nobody can win. Even if you don’t end up dead, you still wind up lost. We’re shown how brutally institutionalised the life has made George Smiley, who seems more like a moving statue than a human being. Not to mention those sent off to homes or those who succumb to alcoholism. It’s a dangerous life, but not in an exciting way – in a dull and dreary and soul-destroying sort of way.

It’s to the credit of Tomas Alfredson’s film that he so skilfully recognises this. Setting the film in the seventies, he beautifully manages to avoid even the faintest hint of glamour or beauty. For all the beautiful recreation of period, something the production design team should be proud of, the film never shies away from the fact that this is an ugly time. It’s telling that the most tense scene in the film takes place in a records office, a glorified library.

However, the real beauty of the film comes from Gary Oldman’s performance as George Smiley. Alec Guinness was superb in the role, but Oldman is better – if only because he seems more comfortable doing less. Oldman has made a career of colourful roles, becoming something of a chameleon. There’s no way to tell how Oldman will play a particular role, and yet he always seems to find one perfectly suited to the film around him. He crafts characters from a collection of quirks and subtle details, and yet he plays Smiley as a perfectly blank slate.

Smiley seems like a man hollowed out – like a thin surface masking an empty core. Oldman looks and feels tired. It’s telling that the only time he ever seems to come alive is when he’s slightly drunk, indulging in that very British pastime of obsessing over past glories and battles well fought. That scene is fantastic, and there’s a sense of a spark of life in the man, so skilfully ignited by Oldman that its absence becomes even more apparent elsewhere. There’s a sense that Smiley might have been, at one time, as optimistic and enthusiastic as Ricky Tarr, but that has faded in time to a more mechanical outlook on life.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a fascinating film, and one that works so well because it’s aware that an absence of life can be just as affecting as its presence. It’s grim and cynical – perhaps the most grim and cynical entry on this list – but it is brilliantly constructed. It captures something that we very rarely see on film, exploring how a seemingly fanciful career can ultimately be so empty and completely devoid of merit or integrity.

More than that, though, it’s a film that doesn’t need an excess of dialogue or exposition. We don’t need to hear George comment on how he’s a broken man, or any characters to outline how incredibly pointless it all is. The films states it so clearly and concisely that any elaboration would be superfluous. It’s a film of stark beauty, and of the kind we rarely see these days.

I’m counting down my top twelve films of 2011, one a day. Here’s the list so far:

12.) Rango

11.) The Guard

10.) Super 8

09.) The Adjustment Bureau

08.) True Grit

07.) Rise of the Planet of the Apes

06.) The Black Swan

05.) Thor

04.) Midnight in Paris

03.) The Artist

02.) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

01.) Drive

You might also like our other end/start-of-year pieces:

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