Saturday, January 14, 2012


The year is 1973, the milieu British secret service. Someone, we’re told, is a mole, a rotten apple—a red one. Retired master spook George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is charged with smoking him out. But how? Everyone has secrets. Everyone is compromised. Everyone looks a little shifty. The world, in fact, looks shifty. If you were to layer every frame of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy atop one another and shine a light through you’d get a palimpsest of grimy wallpaper, gloomy skies, nervous sweat, hairpieces and funeral parlour suits. Smiley’s bifocals rhyme with all those dirty windows, desk lamps and dull reflective surfaces of creaky old lifts with steel walls. You’d get a blur of European cities in multiple shades of shabby. This War isn’t just Cold; it’s also crepuscular, analogue and ramshackle.

Directed with a born voyeur’s gaze by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) from a ruthlessly taut script by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor, Tinker Tailor thrives on atmosphere. It needs to. Because of you haven’t read John Le Carré’s source novel or seen the original 1979 UK miniseries—shit, maybe even if you have—following the tangled threads of this adaptation, which clocks in at just over two hours but could easily have been six, can be a challenge. Smiley’s no great help here as he tends to say little. One of the things necessarily lost in this truncated narrative is a fuller sense of Smiley’s own psychic wounds. But there’s something to be said for this kind of bracing, at times baffling, concision. The film is claustrophobic and never less than intriguing. And the new emphasis on the characters’ sexual proclivities is quite welcome, and beautifully handled by the stellar cast, Colin Firth especially.

Which isn’t to say that we don’t get a few clichés thrown in. “Trust no one,” “Things aren’t always what they seem”: people actually say this stuff in Tinker Tailor. But the unsaid is often what’s most compelling in this morally murky, mystery-saturated thriller. Besides Oldman and Firth, the others actors who work wonders with misdirection and withholding include Toby Jones, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Ciarán Hinds and an especially pretty Tom Hardy—probably the year’s best gallery of guilt-ridden faces.


Feminema said...

Like you, I loved this film. Within five minutes I settled into my seat as if it were going to last for six hours, and I trusted Alfredson completely to tell a twisting tale that I would utterly enjoy. It was the first time in years I was so conscious during the film of loving it -- the look, the tight directing & editing, the colors, the shots of Smiley swimming in that very small pond.

BUT. When we walked out my lovely partner said, "Well, that was a disappointment." He's a huge Le Carré fan and has the softest of soft spots for the 1979 miniseries -- which I've seen but don't remember terribly well -- and says that this film missed the prevailing sadness of the original book and miniseries.

That sadness emerged slowly, I learn, as Smiley slowly unpacks the mystery but also reflects on his own culpability in the Circus -- and realizes that there are no important differences between their own work and that of the Soviets. It's all just spy vs. spy; and the Cold War itself, perhaps, is just a zero-sum game sans ideology.

The more I mull over that insight the more I think he's probably right. And I now need to see the miniseries again. I still think this is a masterwork of great filmmaking (and you're so right about that roomful of tragic faces, Firth's included). But I think it misses the ultimate punch line, which is all about a tragedy on a larger scale.

JB said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Didion. Everything you've mentioned makes sense to me. No doubt, the film lacks that certain cumulative ache, but it seems to me that this lack, if we want to cal it that, has more to do with the difference between the limits of a feature versus those of a miniseries, issues of duration, character development, exposition, and expectations based on familiarity with the source text.

As a feature, I like what this is doing, which is like instant immersion into a very specific milieu and mood. Clarity of plot and character are not its strong points, but I don't expect them to be. The gradual emergence of television as a rival art to movies in recent years must have a lot to do with this need for novelistic density and expansion on the part of audiences. (Not to mention writers sick of trying to forge a career in cinema.) I'm currently digging into Mildred Pierce for pretty much that reason.

But, like I mentioned in the review, there's something very appealing to me about the concision and framing of something like this Tinker Tailor. The concision is itself a kind of performance.