Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2012) – directed by Tomas Alfredson
I noted a short while ago that Tomas Alfredson was due to tackle John le Carré’s classic novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I was salivating with anticipation, not just because Alfredson’s previous outing, Let the Right One In, displayed the trademarks of a genuine auteur, but also because it showed his willingness not to stagnate within the same genre. Ad to this a cast of Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, and Mark Strong, it was difficult to see myself disappointed.
I won’t go deep into the plot, suffice to say that the narrative takes place in the bleak back drop of the 1970s British Intelligence during the cold war. George Smiley is forced to retire along with his agency head (code named Control) due to a botched operation in Budapest. He is, however, rehired by the British government to root out a rumoured Russian mole within the agency who was responsible for the botched operation and the reason for further leaked intelligence.
One very important thing to know before you see this film; you will need to concentrate. A small pantheon of characters, plot twists, finger pointing, and red herrings create a poisonous atmosphere thick with confusion, alienation, and dark paranoia. It is a disorienting experience, but I didn’t mind it one bit. I soaked up the awe inspiring tone of this film which served the fleshing out of its characters well, but unfortunately did little to help my understanding of plot intricacies. When I read the synopsis afterward, it was clearly explained in a few paragraphs on some website. As such, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy could have equally been portrayed clearly on screen. But this would have done the film a disservice. Had the likes of Hollywood made this film, I have no doubt that it would’ve been bloated with actions sequences and an over simplified plot. Here there are no action sequences because none are needed, and the nature of its ambiguous narrative is an intentional mechanism to keep you working hard to understand, and thus keep you engaged. There is reward in working hard to understand a plot line. It is a fine line that Alfredson treads so well. After watching, I found myself asking questions, clearing up certain points, and questioning motives … to which the whole process added to my enjoyment of the film. I wanted to know more after the curtain fell, and that means something.
Beyond that the cinematography is exceptional (see the example stills below). The prowling camera exposes some spectacular framing notably informed by films such as Rear Window. The acting, as you would expect with a cast of this calibre, is top shelf. Oldman is fantastic as George Smiley and drags you into his quiet and clinical world. Also deserving special mention is Mark Strong who branches out from his normal villainous roles and convincingly shows his tender, yet troubled side.
The spy thriller is a genre that I don’t typically get excited about, and there are few films from this genre that make me stand up an pay attention (Breach being one notable exception). However, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a fine example of the slow burn, and is an enthralling film in its own right. I now look forward to Alfredson’s next venture.
Thanks for the heads up about paying attention to the characters and what they are saying. My severe lack of concentration means that whenever we watch a political thriller I spend the whole time asking my wife what’s going on and who are the baddies, which of course drives her up the wall. I guess I just like to let art flow over me.