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A perfect paranoia: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

April 2, 2012

Tomas Alfredson’s (Let the Right One In) masterful version of  John le Carré’s spy classic, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, has raised the bar for the genre. It’s hard for me to say this, because the celebrated and much-loved BBC version starring Sir Alec Guiness is so wonderful, but Alfredson’s film in many respects surpasses the very satisfying series – no mean feat. Part of this film’s success lies in Gary Oldman’s embodiment of the main character, George Smiley. Smiley is written in le Carré’s books as a portly, cuckolded loser (apparently, and only in his personal life). While Guiness definitely looked the part, his voice and overall attitude was just too, well, venerable and memorable for a character like Smiley (called ‘Beggarman’ in the book and film) who keeps his mastery of the spy game very much on the hush hush. Smiley’s success lies in his not being taken seriously in ‘The Circus’, and this is why ‘Control’ (John Hurt) trusts him to root out the mole in his quiet, ordinary way. Smiley appears an inconsequential figure, and Guiness is a powerful presence, even huddled in his overcoat.

Gary Oldman is just amazing as Smiley. He personifies the ‘little grey man’, yet simultaneously also exhibits the frightening intelligence demanded of the character. Smiley is, after all, a dangerous man, no matter how pathetic he is in his marriage. And he definitely gets his moment of retribution and quiet triumph, providing a much-needed heroic uplift in a film all about selling out and personal and ideological disappointment. (Even if Smiley’s triumph may ultimately be short-lived. Life in the Circus seems a rollercoaster business!)

The film also looks spectacular, an amalgam of subdued ’70s, Eastern Bloc and Cold War hues and tonalities. The period look of the film and its emotional punch – even if chilly and cynical – are transmitted through flawless styling and set dressing. Every frame is art in this film.

And the performances. Well. In that typically flawless yet unassuming, workaday manner that British actors have, everyone is professional and magnificent. Colin Firth (‘Tailor’) is confident and smugly sexy; Mark Strong gets to play a nuanced, vulnerable character who is Not a villain for once; Benedict Cumberbatch is warm, efficient and very moving. It’s strange that such a detached, visual film has such undercurrents of repressed, hidden emotion. So much is unsaid and so much is overwhelmingly sad. It is these thwarted moments of humanity underlying the spying, and recruiting and watching, far beneath the Cold War paranoia, that seeps through into every scene, that make the film really sing as a narrative.

I get that the film may be confusing to many. The names of the main Circus spymasters are only revealed some way into the film; there is on the whole little helpful explanation for viewers not already familiar with British spy narratives. The dense plot is reduced. The Cold War, and spy games of old is maybe considered old news. The film demands concentration, it deals in subtlety; it is slow and glacially paced (yet exciting). It is perhaps too bleak, convoluted and understated for many viewers.

In my opinion, all of these are good, neccessary qualities in today’s world of derivative, noisesome motion pictures. Í certainly did not get the impression that anything in the book was lost in this, shortened version. The film works with abstractions and suggestions and silences instead of lengthy explications. I liked being treated with intelligence and I found much to appreciate, even love. This is a damn fine movie, and severely underappreciated in the award’s circuit in my opinion. But of course, this is relatively demanding stuff. For everyone else – there is Salt, Bond and Jason Bourne.

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From → film reviews, Movies

One Comment
  1. Anonymous permalink

    Absolutely awesome review. u write brilliantly and from one who knows Le Carre’s books very well, well the Cold war ones any way, I just have the overwhelming urge to run out and see this film immediately.

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