Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (UK/France, 2011)

TinkerTailorSoldierSpyDirected by: Tomas Alfredson. Maybe I was a bit quick to dismiss Le Carré’s novel and its precedent-setting television adaptation as a bit dry and lacking in suspense (because it’s the Cold War and, you know, we know how it ends). And maybe I’m too much a product of my generation—the rapid-fire editing, ADD, MTV generation, or whatever—and this modern, sleek two-hour adaptation chock full of more A-list Brits than you can shake a mole at was automatically going to appeal to me more than the slow-paced, aesthetically unremarkable, dowdy, 6-hour miniseries. “But”, you say, “that dowdy, unremarkable quality was very much in keeping with the novel, and George Smiley’s character, don’t you know”—and I would agree, but I would also add that Tomas Alfredson’s film does the same exact thing, and in a much more beautiful, visually moving way. I was drawn in by a lot of things, perhaps most of them just little markers and aesthetic choices that appealed to me for personal reasons rather than sober, film criticism reasons. Either way, I absolutely loved the overwhelming restraint shown in this movie: the slow pacing, the overall sense of quiet, of deliberate dialogue (especially from Smiley), and the frequent reluctance to show us the faces of the characters. There is some violence in this movie, but it’s glanced over quickly—the images themselves are fully disturbing and unsparing, but we aren’t really allowed to process them, much less revel in them. It’s a violent profession that these buttoned-up, well-postured, upper-class British men have signed on for, but they are not violent people, and Le Carré’s world—here Alfredson’s world—is not itself a violent one. I’m always a sucker for a unique choice in film music. It’s used so sparingly that I actually don’t remember any of the actual “score”. What I do remember is that it’s almost an hour into the film before they make use of a pop song, and when they do it’s very noticeable—a loud disco cover of “Spinning Wheel” to accompany Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy)’s flashback—giving the muted narrative a little jolt and unseating you a bit from the cinematic vernacular that has so far been laid out. There are a few little things like that—the final pop song for the concluding montage sequence is perhaps the most striking example—which kind of unseats the film’s style from itself for a moment or two at a time, yet somehow not enough that the film’s voice is anything less than coherent. Come to think of it, the violence itself does the same thing, as does the deliciously conspicuous green-screen shots they used for the car sequences. The whole film sort of occupies this middle ground between strict realism and some kind of dampened unreality that’s hard to pin down. One thing that’s easy to talk about is the adaptation: compared to the sprawling miniseries, I’d say this film is one of the best page-to-screen adaptations I’ve ever seen. They knew how to condense the story, rearrange the chronology to make it easier to follow, when to relate information in a flashback and when to do so just in dialogue. They knew when to cut stuff but also when to leave stuff in—I was so happy to see little Bill Roach with his stupid glasses—“The unpaid Bill.” I also can’t help but gush over the immense British-actor-boner this movie induces for someone who loves British actors as much as I do. John Hurt alone is enough to win over almost any movie for me—and Gary Oldman alone as well. But there’s Hurt, Oldman, the excellent Colin Firth, the criminally underused Ciaran Hinds, Tom Hardy (who seems almost overqualified for this role), the excellent Toby Jones, my fave supporter Stephen Graham (in that great afro!), and Mark Strong in what is probably the best thing he’s ever done (that I’ve seen). There’s a great interview with Gary Oldman on Charlie Rose that any fan will really enjoy. It’s a great performance, and he was really aware of the precedent set by Guinness on this. This might just be Oldman’s defining role, the one that shows that he can really just do it, that he’s got mega chops alongside anyone you can name. I was going to take this movie as an opportunity to write my first proper Film Essay on this blog, but this film is too personal for me; I’m not viewing it as a critic or as a fan, but as a human being, and this wasn’t meant to be a web diary. I’ll leave you with an unequivocal endorsement. If you’re a fan of this story, of spy movies, of Cold War movies, of British acting or restrained, artful, European directing, then see this movie. And apparently a sequel is in the works, so don’t leave it too long!

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4 responses to “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (UK/France, 2011)

  1. Pingback: Re-View: Band of Brothers [TV miniseries] (USA/UK, 2001) | Offhand Reviews·

  2. Pingback: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (UK, 1966) | Offhand Reviews·

  3. Pingback: Beyond Outrage (Japan, 2012) | Offhand Reviews·

  4. Pingback: A Royal Affair (Denmark/Sweden/Czech Republic, 2012) | Offhand Reviews·

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