Tuesday, December 20, 2011

review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011, Tomas Alfredson)

One of the defining English language novels of the 20th century, Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy has earned a rightful place on a countless number lists which enumerate the most artistically important novels of the past 100 years or so. Anyone willing to venture into the spy genre in literature is immediately directed not only to the works of John Le Carré (pen name), but specifically that novel. As most people familiar with the film world are keenly aware, successful books typically lead to cinematic and television adaptations, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has not been exempt from such a treatment. The 1970s saw the creation of a BBC miniseries starring the legendary Sir Alec Guiness and, interestingly enough, the series itself has garnered near equal praise to that received by the source material. Now, in 2011, over 30 years after that BBS show, arrives the film adaptation, highlighted by, firstly, a remarkable cast that would make even Steven Soderbergh blush, and secondly, by one of the most interesting new directors on the scene, Swede Tomas Alfredson, who wowed just about everyone three prior with the vampire tale Let the Right One In.

The novel is blessed (or cursed, depending on whom one asks) with stunning depth of psychological character study, thus making it a challenging read, especially the first time. Tomas Alfredson's film attempts to keep the plot down to the bare minimum. Essentially, a recently retired British spy, George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is dragged back into service, temporarily at least, to investigate some disturbing possibilities within the high ranks of the secret service. It is rumoured that a mole, or double-agent for those unfamiliar with spy linguistics, has infiltrated the Circus (MI6) some years ago and has climbed his way up the echelon. The service's former chief, Control (John Hurt, playing a character the equivalent of 'M' in the Bond pictures) believed, prior to his passing, that the enemy was one of four top officials, among them Bill Hayden (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaràn Hinds), Percy Alleline (Tobey Jones) and Smiler himself. Links to the truth lie with field agent Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy), back from a long defunct misison, as well as with another field agent believed to be deceased, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong). Smiley acquires himself an young assistant, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), to help him swath through the lies, conspiracies and shadows.

It seems quite amazing that a mere two films into what shall undoubtedly be an illustrious career, director Tomas Alfredson has already acquire and honed a style unto his own. He has a knack for creating artistically noteworthy scenes, via both production design and simple cinematography. What Alfredson succeeds at is what those more familiar with cinema's academic language refer to as being an 'auteur.' His visual style is not merely distinctive, but it simultaneously sets a mood, which itself puts scenes into context, which subsequently helps advance the story. Let the Right One In was a vastly different motion picture, with scenes taking place around snow, in schools, with children, in a different country altogether, although one can certainly detect the similarities between that horror story and this spy thriller. Nearly every scene is inhabited by an austerity which exquisitely sets the tone for the moment and what is to follow. One need remember that when Le Carré created these stories, he was inspired by the experiences acquired throughout his own career. The omnipresent austerity reminds the viewer that spies need always be on their toes, do not reveal too much, do not truly be yourself. In fact, lose yourself altogether for the greater good of whatever mission a spy is tasked with. What surprises most is that the film can extrapolate moments of suspense and genuine emotion, especially on the part of characters like Smiley and Ricky Tarr, this despite all the seriousness on display.

Alfredson's camera is rarely, if ever, particularly flashy, preferring rather to move quite smoothly from character to character, showing precisely what needs to be shown in order to convey whatever is required out of a scene and nothing more. There are no wasted shots. A brilliant example of this when Smiley recounts to Peter the time when he had the privilege of speaking to Control's Moscow opposite. The confidence Alfredson has in telling this story through a clever yet remarkably simple camera trick. Nothing supremely complex is required, just a small, unorthodox touch that sets the scene apart from so many other scenes in films where a character reveals something that occurred in his or her past. What is shown, how it is shown and when it is shown are three elements Alfredson clearly takes into consideration in very specific ways, playing with colours, lighting and angles in realistic yet powerful ways. As mentioned above, from a visual standpoint, Alfredson's movies have genuine artistic merit to them, even though upon first glance they may appear more grim and boring than anything else. 


Obviously, an articles discussing this version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy would be woefully incomplete without mention of the cast. The film is blessed with three standouts. Chief among them is Gary Oldman, who inhabits a spy like non other. This review briefly mentioned how a spy might intentionally lose him or herself in order to progress. Spying is a game of intentional, subtle games of trust and mistrust. Oldman's Smiley is one of the most difficult characters ever to read in a movie, not because the script gives the actor nothing to do, but because, as an old pro, he knows he must somehow be as detached as possible, emotionally, speaking all the while remaining as attached as possible, professionally, speaking There are fleeting moments, such as when Smiley learns that Control once believed Smiley himself could be the mole, when one can detect the slightest emotional reaction, although it comes and goes so quickly one will miss it if one blinks. To counter the near unflappable Smiley is Cumberbatch who plays Peter Guillam. More youthful and energetic, his services are not only plot related, but help to balance out some of the tone set with the characters since we follow him nearly as much as Smiley. Finally, there is Tom Hardy as Ricky Tarr, the half disillusioned, half romantically desperate field agent who wants nothing more than to ensure that the Russian woman he fell in love with while on his final mission is admitted into Britain. While Hardy is not a central character, his performance does give many scenes a bit of a lift.

After dissecting so many positive aspects to the film, what could possibly prevent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy from being a masterpiece? In one word, the script. There are far, far too many characters played by actors who are far too fantastic for the two hour run time to ever cope with developing all of them sufficiently. The crux of the problem is that, by the end, it matters very little who the mole was since the people who get the shaft are the three prime suspects. Now, arguments have been tossed around, admirably so even, that the film is not really concerned with that matter. While that is a fair point, Alfredson's direction, in particular during the moment of the reveal, suggest otherwise. His direction in the scene when it is revealed that Control suspected Smiley of possibly being the traitor suggests otherwise. Plenty of superbly directed scenes suggest otherwise, leaving the script to limp forward instead of march confidently. There is a lot of time investigating through interviews with other characters and by stealing secret documents from MI6 libraries. To top it off, the suspects are played by Colin Firth, Tobey Jones and Ciaràn Hinds! In this regard, there is, unfortunately, a lack of connection between the direction and the script.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy might not be remembered as the best adaptation of Le Carré famous novel, but there are more than enough good things about it for those looking for some adult minded entertainment to be satisfied.

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