Friday, April 27, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I have seen every James Bond movie at least four times (except Quantum of Solace).  I mention that to point out just how much I enjoy spy movies.  I have also read most of the original James Bond books, as well as several spy novels by Robert Ludlum and John le Carré; I mention that to prove that I understand the difference between a James Bond movie and an actual spy film.  The reality (according to the fiction I have read) of espionage is that unremarkable people patiently do a lot of work as subtly as they can, with potentially Earth-shaking results.  When I saw the first trailer for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy --- based on one of the best action-free spy stories ever --- and saw the excellent cast, I knew I would be in for a treat.  A subtle, quiet treat, but a treat nonetheless.
Above: an action sequence in the film, shown in real time

Control (John Hurt) is dead.  The former head of British Intelligence (AKA SIS, AKA MI6, AKA --- in le Carré's books, anyway --- The Circus) died in disgrace.  Convinced that there was a high-level mole feeding information to the Soviets, Control approved a mission to bring over a defector from the Eastern bloc that allegedly had hard proof as to the mole's identity.  The mission was a failure; the MI6 agent, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), was identified and shot (not dead, though), and an international incident was born.  Control and his right hand man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), were forced into retirement.  The rest of Control's elite inner circle of intelligence men simply moved up a few rungs and have been ruling ever since.
First new rule: reclining seats for the Q-Bert room
After Control's death, Smiley is approached by someone in the British government to investigate a claim made by a Circus operative, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), that there was a mole in The Circus; the incident that made Tarr suspicious happened after Smiley was sacked, so it seems that A) Control was right all along and B) Smiley couldn't have been the leak, since he had no access to Tarr's situation.  Smiley is tasked with finding the double agent amongst the Circus elite, but doing so without The Circus' knowledge, and without direct access to The Circus himself.  That may sound difficult, but that's because it is.  And also because Control was certain that the mole had to be one of his inner circle.  He even assigned them each a code name; "Tinker" was Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), "Tailor"  was Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), "Soldier"  was Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), "Poorman"  was Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) and "Beggarman" was Smiley.  Even the most trusted spies in The Circus were suspect.  But if we know who Tinker, Tailor, and Solider are, who is Spy?  That's what Smiley's trying to find out.
...and probably who's on the receiving end of this shot

The acting in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is very low-key, but also quite good.  I really liked Gary Oldman's portrayal of Smiley; it is difficult to make a deliberate, contemplative character come to life on film, but I thought Oldman's Smiley was brilliantly cold and calculating, but also jealous and lonely.  His performance was more inaction than action, but I think that's what draws you in.  The rest of the cast (which is pretty huge) is good, but the silence of Smiley is really what this film is about.  Tom Hardy was good as the spy equivalent of a blunt instrument with awful, awful hair. 
Shouldn't spy jackets conceal things better than this?
Rivaling that hair was Mark Strong's combover, although it was nice to see Strong playing a non-villain for a change.  It turns out that he's still fun to watch, even when he's not evil.  John Hurt was probably the most explosive character in the movie, which seems a little odd, given that he's in his seventies, but just imagine him being loud and cranky and you'll get the gist of his performance.
"Get off my lawn!"
The other fairly emotive character in the film was current holder of the coveted "Most British Name" award, Benedict Cumberbatch.  His character was understandably nervous, but I felt he was a little too high-strung at times.
I just like saying his name.  Try it: Cum-ber-batch!
The rest of the cast was made of fine, establish British actors.  Colin Firth is the most noteworthy, but I thought Toby Jones and Ciarán Hinds also gave solid performances.  I also found it interesting to see Konstantin Khabenskiy in a film released in the West that was not directed by Timur Bekmambetov; Khabenskiy basically played the stereotype of a hard-drinking Russian jerk, but he's pretty good at that.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the first major English-language film from director Tomas Alfredson, and I think he was a good stylistic match to the source material.  For some reason, most of the Swedish directors I have seen have excelled at slowly-paced, subtle films, and that's exactly what this story needed.  I liked how quiet and claustrophobic this movie felt at times, and I thought Alfredson did a great job with the actors.  My only problem was how dense the narrative was.  I like that Alfredson didn't dumb the story down or over-explain things, but this is a movie that demands your attention --- and if you're not sure that it makes sense, you're going to need a few viewings and a flow chart to make a definite conclusion. 
Because Smiley sure as hell won't tell you

As much as I enjoyed this subtle, complex film, I wasn't as blown away as I had hoped.  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is definitely a solid movie, but it's not the sort of movie that I want to re-watch in the immediate future.  It's very, very slow --- and I think that pace fits the story well --- so I will need to be in just the right mood to watch this again.  There's isn't anything about the film that I downright disliked, but (aside from the overall consistent quality) there wasn't anything that I positively loved, either.  Oldman was great, but his role is almost an anti-presence in the film; who he isn't spending time with and what he's not saying aloud are kind of his defining traits.  While that was artfully done, it's not the sort of performance that amps me up.  Still, this is a very cerebral spy drama.  It might not exactly "thrill," but it is one of the best examples of what espionage is (probably) truly like.

1 comment:

  1. With all of the constant information being thrown at us, I think that we could have had a bit more of an extended time-limit to really let everything sink in but with the amazing performances from everybody involved, and the assured direction from Alfredson, this ends up being a pretty good mystery flick that just needed more time. Good review Brian.