Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Reviewed: 23 February 2012
jamesintexas rating--*** 1/2 (4 Stars = Highest Rating)
Confusing. Still not sure what happened. Loved it.
Full disclosure: I loved director Tomas Alfredson's Scandanavian vampire thriller Let The Right One In, and though I've never read much John LeCarre, I mean to, and I'm in love with spy thrillers from having devoured Ian Fleming's Bond series as a young boy to speeding through the Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish crime thrillers of today. So, the idea of Alfredson focusing on the Cold War chess game between Britain's upper levels of intelligence (aptly nicknamed "The Circus") and the very real threat of the Russians appealed to me before I even stepped into the theater. The cast looks and sounds great in the trailer and the poster.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy invites much speculation, much frustration, and much consternation. Yet, throughout it all, I loved the attention to period detail and technology, a brilliant score by Julio Iglesias that underscores and does not lead you emotionally, as well as a lead performance by a nearly silent Gary Oldman as George Smiley, retired spyman who is brought out of retirement. Oldman is a fantastic actor, and I've loved his work in JFK, Bram Stoker's Dracula, the latter episodes of the Harry Potter series, as well as a marvelous vampy turn in The Fifth Element. Zorg in that film has to be one of my all-time favorite film characters! Gary Oldman can go big, and it is crucial that Alfredson directs him to go small. Tiny gestures, movements of the face and body, one line with voice raised in the entire film all combine into a character that remains a cipher, confusing and morally ambiguous. Even at the end.
Smiley begins the film ousted from the Circus with Control (John Hurt, excellent as always) due to a botched exercise in Budapest which opens the film. As new leadership takes over, British higher-ups contact Smiley about coming out of retirement; seems they believe, as did Control, that there's a mole in the Circus, and Smiley's assigned a secret task force to figure out who it is. The characters swirl around as possible suspects: Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, David Dencik, among others. Smiley himself was even considered a possible suspect by Control who labeled the suspects with the eponymous nicknames, taped to chess pieces. He must infiltrate his former workplace, research backgrounds and possible scenarios, and Smiley does the quietly devastating work of looking at his coworkers under the microscope.
This film works as an unconventional spy thriller because it returns to the roots of spying and the office politics of any government bureaucracy. I love the interplay among the main characters, as well as the shadowy world of the Circus, the central location of the film which is itself depicted in both the routine, mundane office work of spying and also a strange, bacchanal holiday office party, where Smiley observes his wife's behavior.
It seems apt to describe this as chess and other spy films which deal in explosions, inundation with technology, and simple, reductive espionage light types of situations as checkers. Recently, Bond films have focused on Bond the race car driver and Parkour enthusiast, not necessarily Bond the sleuth, the spy who noticed the tiny details and violations of social decorum. In From Russia With Love, Bond noticed that Red Grant (Robert Shaw) ordered red wine with fish at dinner, thus betraying himself as a Russian spy and leading to one of the greatest battles of all time on the Orient Express train. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, George Smiley notices tiny details, and these details register on Oldman's weathered, impassive, mask-like face. He raises his voice once in the film, and I wonder if he says more than 100 words in total, while appearing in nearly every scene. Filmspotting podcast host Adam Kempenaar quoted T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in his interview with the director of this film quite aptly: "We must prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet." And, I think he has touched upon the themes brilliantly. Through clothing, affectation, voice, posture, these spies and bureaucrats are preparing "faces" for each other, and Smiley's face is prepared to encounter anything-his wife's infidelity, Control's death, a botched job in Budapest, a possible deportation and probable death for a main character-with the same tremor of emotion and stillness.
Highlights include the opening scenes in Budapest where Mark Strong feels that something is awry in his mission, as well as a scene involving a deportation and an arriving airplane on a runway, which is a large scale version of the chess game Smiley has been playing. Smiley's recreation is swimming in a river with his head above water, struggling gamely but making progress. London feels dirty, grey, washed-out. The film builds and builds, but it never coalesces into some gigantic out of character action extravaganza or build-up of score. The final confrontations involve the raising of a voice, a confusing violent act, betrayals and scenes without fireworks.
As a result, the final sequence of shots which sum up Smiley's rise to power is both terrifying and exhilarating. I love the color and the background of the Circus's room; I love that we don't see who Smiley is addressing in the room; I love the French version of Bobby Darin's "Beyond The Sea" (sung by Alberto Iglesias) playing in the background. Gary Oldman is a fantastic actor, and though I don't think he will win tonight for Best Actor, I really think that he could win for this film. His work is masterful, Alfredson's film is adult and intense, and we haven't even dug into the well-crafted supporting work from Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Mark Strong especially, but really everyone in this cast is exciting and holds their own. But Oldman rules the roost, and this film is a tribute to his craftsmanship as an actor and his confidence in Alfredson's direction.
In short, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is flat-out brilliant. The best spy thriller in years.