Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (dir. Tomas Alfredson)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an incredibly dense, uncompromising film. It doesn’t take a second worrying about whether or not you understand the terminology, know who the people are, or even fully grasp its setting. I placed it in the early-to-mid-’70s based on the clothing and hair styles, and the press notes confirm it in 1973 (but then there’s the matter of the flashbacks...). It’s immediately evident that it’s during the Cold War (because of course it is), but the rest is as elusive as the characters we’re following. It’s an admirable approach to the material, and even if it made for rough waters to tread, I also liked it all the more for it.

The central thrust of the story involves George Smiley, ousted member of the SIS (or MI6 if you prefer), rehired in secret to track down a mole within the organization (more generally referred to as The Circus). Through the course of his investigation, he digs up other business, both savory and otherwise, of the members’ past, including his own. Screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, and more importantly director Tomas Alfredson, make little effort to separate the flashbacks from the present, but if you really pay attention, you can catch on pretty quickly to figure out what the film’s rules are for such diversions. And it would all feel so terribly cumbersome if the film didn't so constantly reward your attention.

Like Robert De Niro’s excellent and sadly underrated The Good Shepherd, Alfredson’s film thoroughly enjoys its spy trappings (the code names, the passwords, the subterfuge, etc.) while never forgetting the human element. Spying is a calculated field of operation, but it’s still overseen by people, who are inherently full of weakness and can be unpredictable. They can be swayed (towards you or against you), reasoned with (to a point), disillusioned, and enraged. They have blind spots. They forget. All of these are dangerous elements on a field called “intelligence,” so they have to be accounted for as best they can. But they can never totally covered, and the way in which small mistakes and accidental revelations betray them is so subtly well-played, but ultimately the true meat of a very meaty picture.

Gary Oldman is otherworldly in the lead role. Smiley is the ultimate spy, allowing as little emotion as possible to cross his face, leaving his neutral expression a creepy blank slate. He doesn’t say a word in his first few scenes, and as the picture wears on, you start to learn he doesn’t have to. He has the kind of face that can draw a confession because he seems to already know everything, making it all the more alarming when he (and we) realize he doesn’t. When he discovers that he was also suspected of being a mole, Alfredson is smart enough to hold on a lengthy shot of his reaction, and Oldman expertly navigates some tricky emotions while belying very little. When the revelations get more personal, his sudden burst of immediately-suppressed emotion is startling.

To say the supporting cast is “strong” would be an embarrassing understatement, but let’s just say Alfredson gets a return on his considerable investment. Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hines, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch are nobody’s idea of low class, and boy is it great to see them all onscreen in an ensemble. None of them are out to steal the spotlight (though John Hurt almost does by default), but Alfredson plays them each very wisely, not just towards their individual strengths, but more aggressively towards your suspicions of each character. Most of them, at one point or another, are suspected of being moles - all of them with good reason - but none are played too strongly as a red herring, nor as an obvious suspect (and there's a difference between the two). Better still, the mystery is not even the most compelling part of the film, with the implied history between each character making for more valuable interactions. Alfredson knows how to catch just the right moment between two people, and when to subtly recall that interaction later in the picture. It's brilliant ensemble work all around.

Alfredson's manner of shooting, in fact, is very sharp. Very often we enter a scene through a window, mirroring the characters’ paranoid suspicion that they’re constantly being watched. It’s rare that such a shot will pay off as a genuine point-of-view perspective, and all the better for it, but Alfredson also knows how to use his camera subjectively. George has a wife, Ann, who has since left him. We glimpse her in memories, but she’s never directly seen. How better to portray a person who’s a bad memory to one man and a pawn to another? It's a handsomely shot film to be sure, with compositions straight out of Antonioni that really, truly demand to be seen on the big screen. I popped in the screener to scope out some scenes again and clarify some details, and while the picture certainly holds up, the power is somewhat diminished. Do not wait for this on DVD; it may be a procedural, but small screen stuff this ain't.

I was consumed by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as I watched it, and it's stayed nice and sharp in the intervening weeks. It doesn't once assume you're anything less than an attentive viewer, so chin up and dive right in, because the rewards are great. A compelling, kind of pulpy spy plot mixed with the right dose of emotion under very careful direction, and boy...I'd love to talk about the ending at some point.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will be come out in limited release on December 9th, expand to a few other cities on the 16th, before hitting art house theaters nationwide on December 23rd. Click here to see release info.

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