Monday, January 9, 2012

Spy Game: TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY


Under chilly gray skies at the height of the Cold War, an assignment goes wrong. A British agent (Mark Strong) is shot down outside a café in Budapest and the head of MI6 (John Hurt) is forced out in the ensuing blowback. At his last meeting before his forced retirement, the old man declares that he’s taking Smiley with him. That would be George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a deputy head of the intelligence service. He’s the graying, bespectacled gentleman on the back half of middle-aged who registers the news with the slightest turn of his head. What is he thinking? That’s the question that resonates throughout Tinker Tailor Solider Spy as Smiley, after being forced out of his job, is secretly approached to head up an investigation into some devastating information. It turns out that one of his former colleagues, indeed one amongst the select group of men who are in charge of the whole Circus (a codename for MI6 headquarters), is a Soviet mole.

Smiley accepts his assignment with the same impenetrable gaze, the stiff upper lip and quiet resignation to duty, as he did the news of his forced retirement. That tilt of the head in his first scene speaks volumes. Not only does it set up a character who draws you in through his apparent frailty and quiet dominance expressed through his deliberate, considered actions, it sets up a film in which small decisions, slight movements, quiet moments, speak loudly and dramatically. This is one of the best directed – tightly controlled without ever being heavy-handed – films of the year. Swede Tomas Alfredson, whose modern vampire film Let the Right One In is a masterpiece of restraint and visual imagination, makes Tinker Tailor a vital and exquisitely composed thriller of great patience about a vampiric profession. It portrays the spy game as a drab office job with life and death stakes that slowly drains the passion out of people.

One spy, played with a sapped vitality by Tom Hardy, returns from a botched mission behind enemy lines during which he had an affair with a beautiful Russian woman (Svetlana Khodchenkova). In flashback we see the reluctant rush of warm romance that overtakes them. In the present, Hardy’s cold eyes sell the impact of the aftermath. This man has been ground under by the job, by the violence he’s seen and the moral confusion he’s had to endure. Compare that to the wiry energy of a young spy who works a desk, as played by the delightful Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s secretly helping Smiley and, though he doesn’t go into the field, his analog research through pages and volumes, smuggling files out of a secured library, has its dangers. As he becomes more aware of the danger the unknown mole could pose to him, the constant surveillance he may be opening himself up to, he realizes that he’s forced to play the spy game even in his own office amongst supposed allies. The main difference between the English and the Soviet spies here are only the teams they’re playing for. Political ideology goes unmentioned. The game itself stays constant. It’s a tightly restrained game that favors the cold and devious and will demand your participation even if you weren’t expecting to play.

That’s what makes Oldman’s masterfully understated, occasionally downright catatonic, central performance so effective. In his silence and patience, his interrogative calm, you can see gears of investigative thinking turning behind his eyes. His large glasses form a protective dome that allows him to represent himself as weaker than he really is. His calm demeanor cloaks a complex interiority. On the rare occasions he raises his voice the impact of the shift in volume is startling. When, in a flashback, he spies a hurtful personal revelation about his marriage, the emotion breaks through his face with such shattering swiftness that it’s clear that this is a man who uses restraint and calm to mask deep personal feelings. He never speaks about this revelation, just as he never needs to sit and explain his thought process in his ongoing clandestine investigation into the identity of the Soviet mole. Each of the suspects (David Dencik, Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds and Toby Jones) has potentially damning evidence to be considered. But to whom does all this evidence point? Without talking us through his thought process, Oldman makes it all so quietly clear.

This is a top-notch mystery, a pleasurable espionage puzzle. Screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan had their work cut out for them, condensing the original John le Carré novel, which already filled a 1979 miniseries with Alec Guinness, into a little over two hours. I’ve yet to encounter the story through either of those earlier tellings, but the filmgoing experience was exceptionally satisfying. It’s complex and understated, yes, but I didn’t find it confusing or overwhelming at all. Alfredson uses the lean and dense screenplay to layer in flashbacks, including to an increasingly poignant office Christmas party, to lay out all the pieces of the puzzle then allows them to snap into place with a satisfying thrill.

Without sacrificing clarity, Alfredson draws the story in such artful, economical strokes. His tremendously meticulous filmmaking displays remarkable visual clarity and tightly honed soundscapes. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema creates images that are striking and chilling with a deceptive complexity lurking behind their simplicity, much like the situations they dramatize. At one point, Hardy looks across the street at his Soviet target, the man’s apartment splayed out across the way in a Rear Window style. Here is a film in which the characters, no matter how secretive they try to be, are living their lives, running their schemes, to some degree on display for those trying to surveil them. The man who will ultimately triumph is the one who manages to reveal the least as he outsmarts the rest. I’d bet on Smiley.

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