FILM REVIEW: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (UK/ France, 2011)
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt

You could be forgiven for approaching Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with some degree of trepidation. So many European filmmakers, who rocked the world with their first few features, went the way of the dodo after they started working in the English language. And considering just how good Let The Right One In was, you find yourself almost begging that Tomas Alfredson hasn't gone the way of Wolfgang Petersen.O, we of little faith. Within minutes of his second film beginning, Alfredson has laid all such fears to rest, allowing us to enjoy one of the very best films of 2011. His adaptation of John Le Carré's highly regarded novel is as distinctive and artistic as his debut, packing in a gallery of superb performances within a perfectly rendered period setting. While it never entirely hits the heights of Let The Right One In, it is a more-than-worthy follow-up from a director who seemingly can do no wrong.For starters, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is truly beautiful to behold. Alfredson reunites with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema to create a highly evocative portrait of 1970s London. The screen is awash with faded greens and blues, and many scenes are shot partially or wholly in shadow to underscore the murky dealings that are afoot in the Circus. There is a perfect balance between artistic license and authenticity, creating a world which is both unique and instantly recognisable.Not only is Alfredson's vision of London so visually outstanding, it is also culturally nuanced. He identifies three separate cultures uneasily co-existing, evoking and demonstrating them through intelligent choices of music. We have the recent past, embodied by Tom Hardy's character, which is like a paler rendition of Life on Mars, complete with Mudd and David Bowie. We have the recent past, namely the 1960s, which is reflected in the Breathless-like scenes between Hardy and the girl in the convertible. And we have the Circus itself, which seems completely unchanged from the 1940s, or possibly earlier than that, as typified by the inclusion of a George Formby record when one of MI5's agents makes a call from a music shop.In Alfredson's hands, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy becomes a film about malaise and ennui. It depicts a Britain which is past its glory, not only as an imperial power but as an intelligence force: not only can it no longer conquer countries, but it is increasingly incapable of holding on to their secrets. The Circus increasingly positions itself as a buffer zone, refusing to admit reliance upon its American "cousins" and contenting itself with gathering intelligence about Soviet activity in Europe.The Circus is depicted as the very definition of old-fashioned. If there wasn't a close-up on the ticker-tape showing it was 1973, you would swear that this was the War Office and we were still fighting the Germans. All of the furniture, from the wooden chairs to the Bakelite phones, seems left over from the war, and in the libraries you can almost smell the dust on the shelves. It feels like an organisation built upon self-denial - a collection of people who continue existing without any real reason for doing so. Without any 'proper' wars left to fight, everything Britain stands for has become redundant, and no-one, not even Smiley, is willing to admit it.In the best possible way, the film is very slow-paced for a thriller. It would be totally inappropriate to tell Le Carré's story through Bourne-style shaky-cam and rapid editing, because the material and the technology surrounding it is does not have a 2011 sensibility. This is still an analogue world, in which conversations are transcribed off reel-to-reel tape recorders, bugs are hidden in lampshades, and people signal through flashlights and banging on walls.

The film is also old-fashioned (in a good way) by its methodical patience. With the exception of Control's outburst or Jim Prideaux beign shot, the conversations in Tinker, Tailor are quiet and considered, containing nothing that could be classed as histrionic. Smiley doesn't speak for the first fifteen minutes, and even when he is interrogating the Magic Circle he never shouts: he takes time to phrase his questions, refusing to give anything away and ensuring that he need not repeat himself.You could argue that this understatement and emphasis on method over movement is another period detail; because modern espionage is built around the internet, it makes sense for the camera to move faster and for things to be more action-packed. But it's also a reflection of Le Carré's sensibility. Where his contemporary Ian Fleming was drawn to the glamour of spying, Le Carré sought to dismantle all such illusions, emphasising the loneliness of spying and the moral ambiguity of the protagonists.If a James Bond film is like a shooting gallery intercut with car chases, Tinker, Tailor is like a tricky game of chess. It is a film about characters who are in the endgame: they see the doom of their organisation approaching, and it is a question of when and not if they will be dragged down with it. After Control and Smiley are forced out (with the former dying soon after), it becomes a scramble for power with Percy Alleline emerging as the leader. We follow Smiley as he navigates through the mind-games to uncover the mole - to find the king whom he will trap in an elaborate mate.The inward-looking nature of the Circus is reflected in the understated performances of an extraordinary ensemble cast. In many ensemble films, the cast often compete for attention by out-acting each other, but Alfredson is too smart to put up with any such nonsense. This is a film in which the tiniest little gesture can say everything about a character, whether it's the raise of an eyebrow, the twitch of a lip, or the slightly forced way that Colin Firth smiles at the ghastly Christmas party.Because the TV adaptation of Tinker, Tailor is so well-regarded, any new adaptation in any medium will have to be compared to it. And for all the brilliance and quality of Alfredson's work, there are a couple of areas in which the TV series has the edge. There is not much between them in terms of cast - Gary Oldman can hold his own against Sir Alec Guinness, and in Colin Firth's current form he is more than a match for Ian Richardson. But in compressing the novel or the series into just over two hours, there are two small flaws with this adaptation.Because the cast is so strong, and charismatic, you find yourself wishing to see more of them, something you do get with the TV series. When you've got someone as radiant as Tom Hardy, or as enigmatic as Benedict Cumberbatch, it doesn't seem fair to give them so little screen time. More to the point, a lot of the rich language of Le Carré's novel has been reduced. Bill Haydon's explanation of why he defected is reduced to a few teary sentences, and Smiley seems to centre in on Hayden relatively quickly. These shortcomings aren't enough to throw the whole film off course, but it does put you in the unusual position of wanting it to be half an hour longer.To be fair on Alfredson, he does make up for these tiny shortcomings by bringing out new aspects of the story, particularly the sexual nature of the characters. There are strong indications that Haydon and Prideaux were lovers, from the loaded glances at the Christmas party to the photograph of them together, which Haydon keeps when he raids Prideaux's flat. Haydon is ultimately killed by Prideaux by being shot under the eye: a tear flows from Colin Firth's eye, mingling with blood over the bullet wound, and the camera cuts to Mark Strong, also in tears.Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is an almost perfect film. Its flaws are so miniscule and yet so clear that they will drive you to the point of frustration. But no amount of lingering on them can detract from its status as one of the year's very best films. The performances are superb, the visuals are extraordinary, and Alfredson directs with a reserve and intelligence which is all too rare in modern filmmaking. A true gem.

Verdict: Almost perfect


Tom_Film_Master said...

I hate to say i found it average because it was putting me to sleep because of how dull it was. However, i didnt know what was going on alot of the time, so i think ive missed out on something good. Terrific review!

Daniel Mumby said...

Without wishing to fly off the handle, it wasn't dull. Maybe see it again in a year or so. Cheers for commenting :)

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