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Film Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011; Directed by Tomas Alfredson)

Every few years, a talented young filmmaker cuts his directorial teeth on a John le Carré adaptation, and critics and moviegoers alike are treated to a film whose intelligence and complexity stands in stark relief to the glut of Hollywood hogwash. The last notable instance was in 2005, when Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles crafted The Constant Gardener into a textured critique of corporate corruption and governmental complicity. Now, six years later, Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) tackles one of le Carré’s classics, the Cold War espionage tale Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, fabled as the novel that disseminated the word “mole” into the popular lexicon as shorthand for a double agent.

Never underestimate the near-sighted.

The resulting adaptation is too measured and deliberate to really be tagged as a thriller, a stark grey film that proceeds in sketched hints and understated suggestions. It takes full advantage of its early 1970s settings, taking place predominantly in a drained London, with sojourns to similarly colourless corners of Budapest, Istanbul, Paris, and Russia. There are many ungrinning intelligence men in drab suits talking in code and jargon and evidently striving against each other despite exerting little outward effort. This greywash of dreary intrigue is punctuated by practically motionless bursts of violence, which are bloodless in figurative terms if not strictly so in literal ones.

Although it’s certainly possible to lose the thread of the narrative due to the dogged dryness of the exposition, the plot is not really all that complicated. A British Intelligence agent (Mark Strong) is shot and presumed killed while waiting to meet a prospective defector in Hungary, and the grizzled agency veteran who ordered the operation, Control (John Hurt), is drummed out of his post as a result. At the forefront of the coup is a well-connected new wave in “the Circus”, headed by a Scottish peer Sir Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) with a supposedly bulletproof source of information, codenamed Witchcraft.

The Budapest meet was centered on information about a mole placed highly in the Circus, and another agent (Tom Hardy) conducting surveillance on a prospective Soviet agent in Turkey vanishes after sending word back to London about another potential source that would reveal this mole, his treason presumed by nearly all. Faced with an apparent leak in their ship, the government contacts Control’s right-hand man George Smiley (Oldman), who was pushed into early retirement along with his boss when Alleline’s faction took over, to head a secret investigation to expose the mole. Aided by another retired agent (the retired Roger Lloyd-Pack) and the younger man who is the Ministry’s contact to him (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley examines the suspects in Alleline’s team that the now-deceased Control left to him, their occupation-related codenames giving the film its title, and finds that Witchcraft is not what they suppose it to be.

Alfredson, working from a script adapted from le Carré’s novel by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, shoots his concise actors through windows and across foreground obstacles whenever possible, lending a further opaqueness to cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s already-opaque visual palette. His superb British cast is exactly on his minimalist wavelength, and the older actors especially embody their characters’ concerns with nicely-controlled microexpressions.

Oldman, buttoned-down with manicured silver hair and full-moon 220px-tinker2c_tailor2c_soldier2c_spy_posterspectacles, reveals nary a feeling in his face, but his lines of thought flash subtly across his eyes like a light charge through a circuit board. He briefly lets the façade slip while drinking with Cumberbatch’s Peter Guillam, as he describes an encounter with the Soviets’ master spy, known only as Karla. It’s a marvelously quiet performance from an actor more generally known as a younger performer for his verbose and demonstrative characters, but follows logically from the weary father figures that Oldman has been portraying in blockbusters over the past few years.

The rest of the cast is mostly similarly subtle, in particular the nicely-rounded Colin Firth and the ever-intense Strong, who is in hiding as a schoolteacher and stares contemplative holes in the walls. Hurt dissipates in a fog of cigarette smoke, Cumberbatch mingles confidence with shaking nervousness, and Hardy swaggers in period sweaters and a bad wig, even gaining permission to employ his pillow-lips in a truncated romantic subplot with a potential female Russian defector. The miscast Jones aside (as strong an actor as he is, he can’t help but embody sad little men, and Alleline’s role is not quite that), the cast does a superb job with the material.

But how good is the material? It’s all right, ultimately, its themes and elements and twists and turns obvious enough to popular audiences that Alfredson’s dogged defamiliarizing attempts do not grate terribly. Although it’s arguably le Carré who made these sorts of stories so familiar, even his work suffers from the dissemination of convention. As strong and well-crafted as Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, it offers only a little meaningful insight into either intelligence services or the necessarily inscrutable humans who populate them. The film simmers along at a low boil, with none of the revelatory moments of fine cinema. It’s mostly faultless, but nothing particularly special either.

Categories: Film, Reviews

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